Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on Friday to restore diplomatic ties and reopen embassies after seven years of tension. The major diplomatic breakthrough negotiated with China reduces the risk of armed conflict between rivals in the Middle East – both directly and in proxy conflicts in the region.
The deal, reached in Beijing this week amid its National People’s Congress ceremony, represents a major diplomatic victory for the Chinese as Arab Gulf states see the United States slowly withdrawing from the wider Middle East. It also comes as diplomats try to end a long war in Yemen, a conflict in which Iran and Saudi Arabia have deep roots.
The two countries issued a joint statement on the deal with China, which brokered the deal as President Xi Jinping was given a third five-year term in office on Friday.
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Xi, whose administration in recent days has reignited a campaign to challenge the liberal US-led Western order with warnings of ‘conflict and confrontation’, was credited in a trilateral statement with facilitating the talks through a “noble initiative” and for having personally agreed to sponsor the negotiations which lasted from Monday to Friday.
Videos showed Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, meeting Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban and Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat.
The statement calls for restoring links and reopening embassies “within a maximum of two months”. A meeting of their foreign ministers is also planned.
In the video, Wang could be heard offering “sincere congratulations” for the “wisdom” of the two countries.
“Both sides showed sincerity,” he said. “China fully supports this agreement.”
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The United Nations hailed the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and thanked China for its role. “Good neighborly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are essential for the stability of the Gulf region,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said at UN headquarters.
The United States also welcomed “any effort to end the war in Yemen and defuse tensions in the Middle East region,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. However, the State Department warned against a deal in which America appears to have had no role: “Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Iranian regime will honor its part of the deal.”
China, which hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last month, is one of the main buyers of Saudi oil. Xi visited Riyadh in December for meetings with oil-rich Arab Gulf countries crucial to China’s energy supply. However, it does not provide the same military protections to Arab Gulf states as America does, which makes Beijing’s involvement all the more notable.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency quoted Shamkhani as calling the talks “clear, transparent, comprehensive and constructive”.
“The removal of misunderstandings and forward-looking visions in Tehran-Riyadh relations will certainly lead to improved regional stability and security, as well as increased cooperation between the Persian Gulf nations and the world of Islam to manage the current challenges,” Shamkhani said.
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Al-Aiban thanked Iraq and Oman for their mediation between Iran and the kingdom, according to his remarks carried by the Saudi Press Agency.
“While we appreciate what we have achieved, we hope we will continue to pursue constructive dialogue,” the Saudi official said.
Tensions have long been high between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The kingdom severed ties with Iran in 2016 after protesters swarmed Saudi diplomatic posts there. Saudi Arabia had executed a prominent Shia cleric along with other 46 days earlier, sparking the protests.
This happened when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then an MP, began his rise to power. Son of King Salman, Prince Mohammed has previously compared Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler and threatened to strike Iran.
Since then, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018. Iran was later blamed for a series of attacks, including one targeting the heart of the Saudi oil industry in 2019, temporarily halving the kingdom’s crude output.
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Although Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen initially claimed responsibility for the attack, Western nations and experts blamed Tehran. Iran denied this and also denied committing other aggressions later attributed to the Islamic Republic.
Religion also plays a key role in their relationship. Saudi Arabia, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba to which Muslims pray five times a day, has billed itself as the world’s first Sunni nation. The Iranian theocracy, on the other hand, sees itself as the protector of Islam’s Shia minority.
The two powers have competing interests elsewhere, such as in the unrest in Lebanon and in rebuilding Iraq after the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed militia and political group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said the deal could “open up new horizons” in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Iraq, Oman and the United Arab Emirates also welcomed the agreement.
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Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a researcher at Rice University’s Baker Institute who has long studied the region, said Saudi Arabia reached a deal with Iran after the United Arab Emirates struck a similar deal with Tehran. .
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“This tension reduction and de-escalation has been going on for three years and it was triggered by the Saudi recognition they believe that without the unconditional support of the United States, they were unable to project their power vis-à-vis the Iran and the rest of the region,” he said.
Prince Mohammed, focused on massive construction projects at home, likely also wants to pull out of the war in Yemen, Ulrichsen added.
“The instability could do a lot of damage to his plans,” he said.
The Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition, armed with US weapons and intelligence, went to war on the side of the Yemeni government-in-exile in 2015. Years of unsuccessful fighting have created a humanitarian disaster and pushed the poorest nation of Arab world on the brink of famine.
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A six-month ceasefire, the longest in Yemen’s conflict, expired in October.
Negotiations have recently been underway, notably in Oman, a long-time interlocutor between Iran and the United States. Some had hoped for a deal before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins later in March. Iran and Saudi Arabia have held on-and-off talks in recent years, but it was unclear whether Yemen was behind the new detente.
Yemeni rebel spokesman Mohamed Abdulsalam appeared to welcome the deal in a statement that also criticized the United States and Israel. “The region needs the return of normal relations between its countries, through which Islamic society can regain its lost security as a result of foreign interventions, led by the Zionists and the Americans,” he said.
For Israel, which has wanted to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia despite the Palestinians remaining stateless, Riyadh easing tensions with Iran could complicate its own regional calculations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had no immediate comment on Friday. Netanyahu, under political pressure at home, has threatened military action against Iran’s nuclear program as it enriches itself closer to military-grade levels than ever before. Riyadh seeking peace with Tehran pulls out a potential ally for a strike.
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It was unclear what this development meant for Washington. Although long seen as guaranteeing energy security in the Middle East, regional leaders are increasingly suspicious of US intentions after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
But the White House has bristled at the idea that a Saudi-Iranian deal in Beijing suggests a rise in Chinese influence in the Middle East. “I would vehemently reject this idea that we are backing down in the Middle East – far from it,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposes the Iran nuclear deal, said renewing Iran-Saudi relations via Chinese mediation “is a loser, loser, loser for the American interests,” noting, “Beijing loves a vacuum. ”
But Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute, who advocates engagement with Iran and backs the nuclear deal, called it “good news for the Middle East, since Saudi-Iranian tensions have been a engine of instability”. He added that “China has become an actor capable of resolving disputes rather than simply selling arms to conflicting parties”, noting that a more stable Middle East also benefits the United States.
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, Jack Jeffery in Cairo, Aamer Mahdani, Darlene Superville and Matthew Lee in Washington, Jennifer Peltz in New York, and Bassem Mroue and Abby Sewell in Beirut contributed.
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