S. Arabia-Iran patch-up takes world by surprise

Published March 11, 2023
BEIJING: China’s top diplomat Wang Yi stands as Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani and Saudi Arabia’s National Security Adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban shake hands after historic agreement between the two countries to resume ties, on Friday.—Reuters
BEIJING: China’s top diplomat Wang Yi stands as Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani and Saudi Arabia’s National Security Adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban shake hands after historic agreement between the two countries to resume ties, on Friday.—Reuters

• Four-day talks culminate in agreement to open embassies, return diplomats within two months
• China calls it ‘victory for peace’; Pakistan, US, Gulf countries hail move towards normalisation

TEHRAN: Regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed on Friday to restore ties and reopen diplomatic missions in a surprise, Chinese-brokered announcement that could have wide-ranging implications across the Middle East.

In a trilateral statement, Tehran and Riyadh said they would reopen embassies and missions within two months and implement security and economic cooperation deals signed more than 20 years ago.

Friday’s announcement, which follows five days of previously unannounced talks in Beijing and several rounds of dialogue in Iraq and Oman, caps a broader realignment and efforts to ease tensions in the region.

“Following talks, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have agreed to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions within two months,” said the joint statement, which was published by both countries’ official media.

Riyadh cut ties after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in 2016 following the Saudi execution of revered Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr — just one in a series of flashpoints between the two longstanding rivals.

The detente between Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, and Iran, a pariah for Western governments over its nuclear activities, has the potential to reshape relations across a region characterised by turbulence for decades.

The agreement, signed by Iran’s top security official, Ali Shamkhani, and Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, agreed to re-activate a 2001 security cooperation accord, as well as another earlier pact on trade, economy and investment.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi described the deal as a victory for dialogue and peace, adding that Beijing would continue to play a constructive role in addressing tough global issues.

A White House national security spokesperson said Saudi Arabia, which is looking to expand its partnership with China, had kept the United States informed about the talks in Beijing but that Washington had not been directly involved.

According to the Saudi Press Agency, an agreement has been reached to resume diplomatic relations and re-open embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months.

The agreement also includes both sides’ affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states.

They also agreed to implement the Security Cooperation Agreement and the General Agreement for Cooperation in the Fields of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth, which was signed in 1998.

‘Hash out their differences’

“It kind of sets the scene for the region’s two superpowers to start to hash out their differences,” said Dina Esfandiary of the International Crisis Group.

“The potential downside of that, of course, is that if they are the ones who are divvying up the region and sorting things out amongst themselves, you start to lose sight of regional contexts and grievances, which could potentially be problematic.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian welcomed the rapprochement and said Tehran will “actively prepare other regional initiatives”.

“The return to normal relations between Tehran and Riyadh offers great opportunities to the two countries, the region and the Muslim world,” he tweeted.

Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said the agreement stems from the kingdom’s preference for “political solutions and dialogue” -- an approach it wants to see become the norm in the region.

Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar all hailed the announcement.

The White House too welcomed the deal, but said it remains to be seen whether the Iranians will “meet their obligations”.

The head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant group, called the agreement a “good development”.

“It could open new horizons in the region,” said Hassan Nasrallah, who is often critical of Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan welcomes normalisation

Pakistan also warmly welcomed the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the Saudi Arabia and Iran, facilitated by China.

In a statement issued on Friday, the Foreign Office said Pakistan firmly believed that this important diplomatic breakthrough will contribute to peace and stability in the region and beyond. “We commend the role played by China’s visionary leadership in coordinating this historic agreement which reflects the power of constructive engagement and meaningful dialogue,” it said. The statement lauded the sagacious leadership of Saudi Arabia and Iran for this very positive development.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2023

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