Iran, Saudi Arabia agree to resume ties, with China’s help

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on Friday to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after seven years of tensions. The major diplomatic breakthrough negotiated with China reduces the possibility of armed conflict between the Mideast rivals – both directly and in proxy conflicts around the region.

The deal, struck in Beijing this week in the middle of its ceremonial National People’s Congress, represents a major diplomatic victory for the Chinese as Gulf Arab states view the U.S. slowly withdrawing from the Middle East in general. It also comes as diplomats have been trying to end a long war in Yemen, a conflict in which both Iran and Saudi Arabia are deeply entrenched.

The two countries released a joint communiqué on the deal with China, which broke the deal as President Xi Jinping was given a third five-year term as leader earlier Friday.

Xi, whose administration has in recent days launched a campaign to challenge the liberal US-led Western order with warnings of “conflict and conflict,” was credited in a tripartite statement for facilitating the negotiations through a “gentleman’s initiative” and having personally agreed to. support the discussions that lasted from Monday to Friday.

Videos showed Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Central National Security Council, meeting with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban and Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat.

The statement calls for the re-establishment of ties and the reopening of embassies “within a maximum of two months.” A meeting with their foreign ministers is also being planned.

In the video, Wang can be heard offering “full congratulations” on the “wisdom” of the two countries.

“Both sides have shown sincerity,” he said. “China fully supports this agreement.”

The United Nations welcomed the Saudi-Iran 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 Stéphane Dujarric said at UN headquarters.

The US also welcomed “any efforts to stop the war in Yemen and reduce tensions in the Middle East region,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. However, the State Department offered a warning about a deal in which America was unlikely to play a part: “Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Iranian regime will honor its side of the deal.”

China, which last month hosted Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, is a major buyer of Saudi oil. Xi visited Riyadh in December for meetings with oil-rich Gulf Arab countries that are critical to China’s energy supplies. However, it does not give the Gulf Arab states the same military protections as America, making Beijing’s involvement much more specific.

The state-run IRNA news agency quoted Shamkhani as saying the talks were “clear, transparent, comprehensive and constructive.”

“Removing misunderstandings and the ideas that are aimed at the future relationship between Tehran and Riyadh will definitely lead to the development of regional stability and security, as well as increase cooperation among the nations of the Persian Gulf and the Islamic world to manage current challenges,” said Shamkhani.

Al-Aiban thanked Iraq and Oman for mediating between Iran and the kingdom, according to what he was quoted as saying by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

“Although we appreciate what we have reached, we hope to continue the constructive dialogue,” said the Saudi official.

Tensions have long been high between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The kingdom severed ties with Iran in 2016 after militants attacked Saudi diplomatic posts there. Saudi Arabia had executed a prominent Shiite cleric along with 46 others days earlier, sparking the demonstrations.

That came when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was deputy at the time, began to rise to power. King Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed previously compared Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler, and threatened to attack Iran.

Since then, the US unilaterally pulled out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018. Iran has been blamed for a series of subsequent attacks, leading to into one that targeted the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry in 2019, temporarily accounting for half of the kingdom’s crude production.

Although Iran-backed Houthi rebels initially claimed responsibility for the attack, Western countries and experts blamed Tehran. Iran denied​​​​ that and denied​​ that it carried out other attacks later as a result of the Islamic Republic.

Religion also plays an important role in their relationships. Saudi Arabia, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba where Muslims pray five times a day, has emerged as the world’s leading Sunni nation. At the same time, the Iranian democracy sees itself as the protector of the minority Shiite Islam.

The two powerhouses have competing interests elsewhere, such as the upheaval in Lebanon and the reconstruction of Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

The head of the Lebanese militia group backed by Iran and Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said the agreement could “open a new horizon” in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Iraq, Oman and the United Arab Emirates also praised the deal.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a researcher at the Baker Institute at Rice University who has long studied the region, said that Saudi Arabia reached an agreement with Iran after the United Arab Emirates reached the same understanding with Tehran.

“This tension and de-escalation has been going on for three years and this was fueled by the Saudi recognition that they were unable to exert power against Iran and the rest of the region without support.” unconditionally from the US. ” he said.

Prince Mohammed, focused on major construction projects at home, appears to want to withdraw from the Yemen war as well, Ulrichsen said.

“Instability could do a lot of damage to his plans,” he said.

The Houthis captured Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, in 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government into exile in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition with US arms and intelligence entered the war on the side of Yemen’s exiled government in 2015. Years of indecisive fighting created a humanitarian disaster and pushed the Arab world’s poorest country to hurt

A six-month ceasefire, the longest of Yemen’s conflict, ended in October.

Negotiations have been ongoing recently, including in Oman, a longtime ally between Iran and the US Some have hoped for an agreement ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan , which starts later in March. Iran and Saudi Arabia have held intermittent talks in recent years but it was unclear if Yemen was the inspiration for this new detainee.

Yemeni rebel spokesman Mohamed Abdulsalam appeared to welcome the deal in a statement that also criticized the US and Israel. “The region must return normal relations between its countries, through which the Islamic society can regain the security it lost due to foreign interventions, led by the Zionists and Americans,” he said. .

For Israel, which has sought to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia despite the Palestinians being left without a state of their own, Riyadh’s escalation of tensions with Iran could complicate its own regional calculations. .

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no immediate comment on Friday. Netanyahu, under political pressure at home, has threatened military action against Iran’s nuclear program as it appears closer than ever to military-grade levels. Riyadh seeks peace with Tehran taking one potential ally for a strike off the table.

It was not clear what this development meant for Washington. Although it has long been seen as a guarantee of Mideast energy security, regional leaders have become increasingly wary of US intentions after withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2021.

But the White House dismissed the idea that the Saudi-Iran deal in Beijing suggests an increase in China’s influence in the Middle East. “I would strongly push back on this idea that we are stepping back in the Middle East – far from it,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which opposes the Iran nuclear deal, said renewed Iran-Saudi ties through Chinese mediation are “a loss, a loss, a loss for American interests,” noting near: “Beijing loves a vacuum. “

But Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute, which advocates for dialogue with Iran and supports the nuclear deal, said it was “good news for the Middle East, as Saudi-Iranian tensions have been a source of -sustainability.” He said that “China has emerged as a player that can resolve disputes rather than simply selling weapons to the opposing parties,” noting that a more stable Middle East is also a plus. to the US.

Associate reporters 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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