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Saudi Arabia, Iran agree to restore diplomatic ties

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on June 21, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)  (Atta Kenare/AFP)
By Vivian Nereim New York Times

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — After years of open hostility and proxy conflicts across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to reestablish diplomatic ties, they announced Friday, in a significant pivot for the two regional rivals that was facilitated by China.

China hosted the talks that led to the breakthrough, highlighting Beijing’s growing role as a global economic and political power, and counterbalance to Washington — particularly in the Middle East, a region that was long shaped by the military and diplomatic involvement of the United States.

Seven years after cutting formal ties, Iran and Saudi Arabia will reopen embassies in each other’s countries within two months and confirmed their “respect for the sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs,” they said in a joint statement published by the official Saudi Press Agency. Iran’s state news media also announced the deal.

The two countries agreed to reactivate a lapsed security cooperation pact — a shift that comes after years of Iranian-backed militia in Yemen targeting Saudi Arabia with missile and drone attacks — as well as older trade, investment and cultural accords.

Whether the shift leads to a deep or lasting detente between governments that have long been in conflict remains unclear, but there have been signs that both nations wanted to find a way to step back from confrontation. Saudi and Iranian officials had engaged in several rounds of talks over the past two years, including in Iraq and Oman, but without significant steps forward.

For the United States, the agreement signals that it cannot take for granted the preeminent influence it once wielded in Saudi Arabia — an ally that is charting a more independent diplomatic course — and elsewhere, as China, a rising superpower, builds trade and diplomatic relations around the world.

While Washington views Iran as an adversary, Beijing has cultivated close ties to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, and unlike U.S. officials, it does not chastise them about human rights. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, visited Beijing last month, and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, visited Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in December. Xi’s state visit was celebrated by Saudi officials, who often complain that their U.S. allies are too critical and are no longer reliable security partners.

China’s most senior foreign policy official, Wang Yi, indicated Friday in a statement on the Chinese foreign ministry website that Beijing had played an instrumental role in the resumption of diplomatic ties.

“This is a victory for the dialogue, a victory for peace, and is major positive news for the world which is currently so turbulent and restive, and it sends a clear signal,” he said.

Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, said the agreement was a “reflection of China’s growing strategic clout in the region — the fact that it has a lot of leverage over the Iranians, the fact it has very deep and important economic relations with the Saudis.” He added, “There is a strategic void in the region, and the Chinese seem to have figured out how to capitalize on that.”

After years of tensions, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran completely in 2016, when protesters stormed the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran after Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric.

The rivalry between the two Islamic nations, which are less than 150 miles away from each other across the Persian Gulf, has long shaped politics and trade in the Middle East. It has a sectarian dimension — Saudi Arabia’s monarchy and a majority of its populace is Sunni, while Iran’s people are overwhelmingly Shiite — but has predominantly played out via proxy conflicts in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, where Iran has supported militias that Saudi officials say have destabilized the region.

Tensions hit a peak in 2019, when a missile and drone assault on a key Saudi oil installation briefly disrupted half of the kingdom’s crude production; the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen claimed responsibility, but U.S. officials said that Iran had directly overseen the attack.

In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has been at war with the Houthis since 2015. Saudi officials have also repeatedly expressed fear over Iran’s nuclear program, saying that they would be the foremost target for any attack by the Islamic Republic.

China wants stability in the region, with more than 40% of its crude oil imports coming from the Gulf, said Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council.

“Beijing has adopted a smart approach using its strategic partnership diplomacy, building diplomatic capital on both sides of the Gulf,” he said. “Unlike the United States, which balances one side against the other and is therefore limited in its diplomatic capacity.”

Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s NourNews Agency that Raisi’s visit to China in February had helped create the opportunity for the negotiations to move forward.

Shamkhani described the talks as “unequivocal, transparent, comprehensive and constructive.” He said he was looking forward to relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that foster “the security and stability of the region.”

For Iran, mending ties with a regional enemy would be a welcome relief after months of internal turmoil marked by anti-government protests that Iranian officials have blamed in part on Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government spokesperson, Ali Bahadori Jahromi, tweeted that “the historic agreement of Saudi-Iran negotiated in China and led entirely by Asian countries will change the dynamics of the region.”

The Israeli foreign ministry declined to immediately comment. But the news complicates the Israeli assumption that shared fears of a nuclear Iran would help Israel forge a formal relationship with Saudi Arabia. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has repeatedly stated in recent months that he hoped to seal diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia for the first time.

The agreement comes as China has been trying to play a more active role in global governance by releasing a political settlement plan for the war in Ukraine and updating what it calls the Global Security Initiative, a bid to supplant Washington’s dominant role in addressing the world’s conflicts and crises.

John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, rejected the notion that the United States had left a void in Middle East affairs, now being filled by China. “I would stridently push back on this idea that we are stepping back in the Middle East,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia had kept the United States informed of the talks with Iran.

“We support any effort there to de-escalate tensions in the region,” Kirby said.

Political analysts took mixed views of the implications for the United States.

Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based research institute, described the renewed Iran-Saudi ties resulting from Chinese mediation as “a lose, lose, lose for American interests.”

He added, “It demonstrates that the Saudis don’t trust Washington to have their back, that Iran sees an opportunity to peel away American allies to end its international isolation and that China is becoming the major-domo of Middle Eastern power politics.”

But Trita Parsi, an executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, a Washington research group that advocates U.S. restraint overseas, called the agreement “good news for the Middle East, since Saudi-Iranian tensions have been a driver of instability in the region.”

Saudi officials are not looking to replace the United States with China, said Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington research group.

When it comes to defense and security, “Riyadh still thinks in English,” she said. But after years of feeling that the United States has become a less reliable ally, they are expanding their alliances wherever they can.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.