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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, Iran agree to restore diplomatic ties

March 10, 2023

Saudi and Iranian officials held bilateral talks in Beijing that concluded with an agreement to restore diplomatic ties. Ties have been severed since 2016.

China's top diplomat Wang Yi, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban pose for pictures during a meeting in Beijing
The major diplomatic breakthrough negotiated with China lowers the chance of armed conflict between the Mideast rivalsImage: CHINA DAILY via REUTERS

Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed on Friday to resume diplomatic ties that have been severed for years, following Beijing-hosted talks which went on for four days.

The two countries plan to reopen their respective embassies in Tehran and Riyadh within two months, they said in a joint statement.

They also vowed to respect each country's "sovereignty and not interfere in internal affairs."

"While we value what we have reached, we hope that we will continue to continue the constructive dialogue," Saudi Arabia's national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban said.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said that "the neighborhood policy, as the key axis of the Iranian government’s foreign policy, is strongly moving in the right direction."

The Iranian Mizan news agency shared a video of the ceremony of inking the agreement on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016. The decision followed the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the Sunni kingdom executed a Shiite Muslim cleric.

What do we know about the agreement?

Delegations from Saudi Arabia and Iran held discussions in Beijing from March 6 to 10. 

As per Friday's announcement, the two countries agreed on a meeting between their top diplomats to implement the restoration of ties and organize the logistics of exchanging ambassadors.

Riyadh and Tehran also agreed to reactivate a 2001 security cooperation agreement, as well as a general economy, trade and investment agreement signed in 1998, according to the joint statement.

What are Saudi Arabia and Iran hoping to gain?

The restoration of ties offers hope for peace in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has led a coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis.

It also presents a pathway to discuss the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from in 2018.

"Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about Iran's nuclear program," Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

"If this new opening between Iran and Saudi Arabia is going to be meaningful and impactful, it will have to address the concerns about Iran's nuclear program — otherwise the opening is just optics." 

Both countries thanked China for hosting and sponsoring the round of talks. They also thanked Middle Eastern neighbors Iraq and Oman for hosting previous rounds in 2021 and 2022

How did the US and China react?

The US said it was aware of reports regarding the restoration of ties between the Middle East's longtime rivals. A White House National Security Council spokesperson, however, referred further details to the Saudis.

"Generally speaking, we welcome any efforts to help end the war in Yemen and de-escalate tensions in the Middle East region. 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 told Reuters news agency.

China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, hailed the agreement as a "victory" for dialogue and peace in a Foreign Ministry statement at the conclusion of the talks. Wang described the restoration of ties as "major good news" in the current turbulent war.

The agreement is seen as a diplomatic victory for China in the Middle East region, where a once active US role has been in decline recently.

"For the Chinese to have addressed this at a time when the US stance toward Iran is becoming more hawkish sends a powerful signal in itself," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East at Rice University in the US.

How did other countries react?

The deal has been welcomed by various leaders around the region.

Mohammed Abdulsalam, the chief negotiator of Yemen's Houthi government in Sanaa, said that "the region needs the resumption of normal ties between its countries for the Islamic nation to reclaim its lost security as a result of foreign interference."

Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militant group that is a close ally of Iran, said the meeting was a "good development."

Yemen sees first nationwide truce since 2016

The foreign ministers of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Egypt also welcomed the deal, as did the United Nations.

"Good neighborly relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are essential for the stability of the Gulf region," UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

"The Secretary-General reiterates his readiness to use his good offices to further advance regional dialogue to ensure durable peace and security in the Gulf region."

zc, rmt/sms, fb (dpa, Reuters)