Saudi Arabia and Iran Agree to Re-establish Ties in Talks Hosted by China

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia and Iran have reached an agreement that paves the way for the re-establishment of diplomatic ties after a seven-year split, in what would be a major realignment between regional rivals that was facilitated by China, the countries said on Friday in a joint statement.

Saudi and Iranian officials announced the agreement after talks this week in China, which maintains close ties with both countries, according to the statement, which was published by the official Saudi Press Agency. Iran’s state news media also announced an agreement.

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

Saudi Arabia and Iran will reopen embassies in each other’s countries within two months, and both states confirmed “their respect for the sovereignty of nations and noninterference in their internal affairs,” the statement said.

China’s role in hosting the talks that led to a breakthrough in a longstanding regional rivalry highlights the country’s growing economic and political importance in the Middle East, a region that was long shaped by the military and diplomatic involvement of the United States. Saudi and Iranian officials had engaged in several rounds of talks over the past two years, including in Iraq and Oman, without significant steps forward.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, visited Riyadh in December, a state visit that was celebrated by Saudi officials, who often complain that their American allies are pulling away from the region.

“That is 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,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. “There is a strategic void in the region, and the Chinese seem to have figured out how to capitalize on that.”

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

“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. “The world is not just the Ukraine issue, and there are many issues bearing on peace and people’s well-being that demand the attention of the international community and must be properly addressed by the parties concerned in a timely way.”

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 — a majority of Saudi Arabia’s population is Sunni, while Iran’s is overwhelmingly Shiite — but has predominantly played out via proxy conflicts in neighboring 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; U.S. officials said that Iran had directly overseen the attack.

The two countries have also faced off in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Houthi rebels whom Iran has supported.

Saudi officials have also repeatedly expressed fear over Iran’s nuclear program, saying that they would be the foremost target for the Islamic Republic. But over the past few years, they have engaged in a series of talks with Iranian delegations, with both sides hoping to ease tensions.

China also wants stability in the region, with more than 40 percent of its energy 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 President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to China in February had helped create the opportunity for the negotiations to move forward.

Mr. 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 antigovernment protests that Iranian officials have blamed in part on Saudi Arabia. The Iranian government spokesman, 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.

Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive 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.”

Yet 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.”

Reporting was contributed by Keith Bradsher, Patrick Kingsley, David Pierson, Christopher Buckley, Michael Crowley, Farnaz Fassihi and Leily Nikounazar.

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