Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to end their seven-year rift and restore diplomatic ties as part of a China-brokered deal aimed at reducing tensions in the oil-rich region.
The agreement, reached on Friday following a meeting in Beijing, will lead to the reopening of their respective embassies within two months as well as the activation of security co-operation arrangements, they said in a joint statement.
Saudi Arabia and Iran ended ties in 2016 after Iranian protesters angered by the execution of a Shia cleric stormed the kingdom’s mission. Three years later, Saudi Arabia and western countries accused Tehran of engineering a drone attack on a Saudi oil facility that temporarily knocked out half of its production.
The Iran-Saudi deal is a victory for Chinese diplomacy and underscored Beijing’s growing clout in the Middle East region. It is also a challenge to the US, whose traditionally strong relations with Riyadh have cooled recently. Iran and Saudi Arabia had previously held several rounds of talks hosted by Iraq and Oman.
The improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations also comes during a period of increasing tensions between the Islamic republic and the west over Tehran’s crackdown on protesters, its nuclear ambitions and the sale of combat drones to Russia that are used to attack Ukraine.
Anna Jacobs, senior analyst for the Gulf states at the Crisis Group think-tank, called the agreement a “major win for regional de-escalation efforts”.
“The Saudi-Iran deal is a clear sign that both countries are ready to turn the page after years of turmoil. More dialogue and confidence-building measures will be needed, but this is a great start,” she said.
Jacobs also suggested it was a step towards improved dialogue between Iran and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who was in Beijing for the negotiations, said the groundwork for the agreement was laid at last month’s meeting in Beijing between president Ebrahim Raisi and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
“The visit . . . paved the way for new and very serious negotiations between Iranian and Saudi delegations,” Shamkhani told state-run Nournews. “Talks [between Iran and Saudi Arabia] were direct, transparent, comprehensive and constructive. Addressing misunderstandings and looking at the future can help develop stability and regional security.”
Xi also visited Saudi Arabia late last year to attend summits with Arab leaders, a move that was aimed at showcasing Beijing’s broader ambitions in the region.
China’s top diplomat Wang Yi described the agreement as a “victory for peace”, according to a foreign ministry statement. Wang also said it showed that the world’s problems were “not limited to the Ukraine issue” — a reference to Russia’s invasion — and that there were others “related to peace and people’s livelihood that require the attention of the international community”.
Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran escalated last year during Iran’s mass protests, with the authorities there accusing Saudi Arabia of funding media that allegedly incited the unrest. Western intelligence services around this time also picked up chatter of a possible Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia, according to diplomats. The US said a show of force had prompted Iran to reconsider its plans.
Riyadh also accused Iran of backing Houthi rebels in Yemen that it has been battling for more than seven years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which together led the military intervention into Yemen, have come under attack from Houthis who have targeted oil facilities and airports.
Riyadh also stood on the opposite side to Iran in Syria, where the kingdom backed rebel groups against president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iran and Russia supported Assad, who has regained much of the country from the opposition. Saudi Arabia has in recent months suggested that Syria should return to the international fold.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council said the US welcomed “efforts to help end the war in Yemen and de-escalate tensions in the Middle East.
“De-escalation and diplomacy together with deterrence are key pillars of the policy President [Joe] Biden outlined during his visit to the region last year,” the spokesperson added.