Iraq’s president Barham Salih offered the first public recognition of Baghdad’s role as mediator between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
He revealed during an interview, broadcast live online with the Beirut Institute think tank, that his country recently hosted direct talks between representatives of the two sides on several occasions.
When he was asked how many rounds of Saudi-Iranian talks Iraq had hosted, Salih replied, "More than once."
"It is ongoing, and it is important and it is significant, and for Iraq to be able to play that convening role between these regional actors is important," he added.
Salih stopped short of providing any further details.
Previously the only round of talks reportedly hosted by Baghdad between officials of the two sides was on 9 April.
"Iran is our neighbour and we want to integrate it into the regional framework, but we are also keen on our sovereignty. We do not want Iraq to turn into an arena of conflict," said the Iraqi president.
There has not yet been any official comment on the remarks from either Riyadh or Tehran.
Elsewhere in the interview, Barham Salih spoke of the fight against Daesh* and terrorism, underscoring it could not be won by (only) military means.
"We have succeeded in liberating our land with the help of our friends but terrorism remains," he said, adding he hoped to witness a solution to the Iran-US standoff.
"The Middle East has been condemned to a cycle of conflict and instability over the last few decades... It's time to move beyond," said Salih.
‘Significant Political Discussions’
The statements come as earlier media reports claimed that senior Saudi Arabian and Iranian officials were engaged in direct talks to revive relations between Riyadh and Tehran.
The Financial Times (FT) cited unnamed sources as saying the talks were "the first significant political discussions between the two nations" since ties between the two influential regional powers were frozen in 2016.
Sources were cited as hailing the first round of negotiations, held in a "positive" atmosphere in Baghdad on 9 April, with neither Saudi nor Iranian authorities commenting on the reports.
"It's moving faster because the US talks [related to the JCPOA] are moving faster and [because of] the Houthi attacks", sources stated, referring to the Saudi-Iranian negotiations and Iranian-aligned Houthis reportedly launching missiles and explosive-laden drones into the kingdom throughout the past few months.
Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2016 after Saudi Arabian diplomatic facilities in the Islamic Republic were attacked by people protesting against the execution of a Shiite cleric - Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr - by Saudi authorities.
Exacerbated by religious differences, as Iran adheres to the Shia branch of Islam, while Saudi Arabia perceives itself as the leading Sunni Muslim nation, the rift escalated in the wake of the Saudi-led coalition's campaign in Yemen.
Hostilities began in Yemen in August 2014 between government forces under the president-in-exile, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the Houthi opposition movement controlling northern Yemen.
At the request of the country's President Mansur Hadi, a coalition organized by Saudi Arabia has been fighting on his side since March 2015. The Houthis have been regularly bombarding Yemen's neighboring Saudi areas, in response to the pro-Saudi coalition's attack on northern Yemen and the blockade of the country's north.
In tit-for-tat accusations, Tehran blamed Riyadh of causing civilian casualties, while the kingdom claims the Islamic Republic is providing weapons and other support to the Shiite Houthi militants.
‘Major Progress’ in Vienna Talks
The current developments also come amid US President Joe Biden's efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Recent reports make mention of a "flurry of diplomatic contacts and reports of major progress", ostensibly indicating the indirect talks between Iran and the US in Vienna "may be nearing an agreement", according to AP news agency.
Tehran and Washington had agreed on scrapping US sanctions against Iranian individuals and institutions, as well as the Islamic Republic's oil and banking sectors, Iran's Fars News reported last week.
The negotiations in Vienna are being conducted by representatives of Russia, China, the UK, France, Iran, and Germany after Washington and Tehran agreed to the indirect talks to revive the international pact reached in 2015 to reign in Iran's nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was unilaterally scrapped by the White House in 2018, under the tenure of then-President Donald Trump, with harsh sanctions imposed on Iran and its regional allies.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly opposed the JCPOA deal, with Riyadh and its allies supporting Trump's decision in May 2018.
*Daesh (ISIS/ISIL/"Islamic State") is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia and other nations.