Dubai: Keen to end its political and economic isolation, Iran has been trying for two years to restore relations with its longtime rival Saudi Arabia, an Arab heavyweight and oil power.
Last September, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lost patience with the slow pace of bilateral talks and summoned his team to discuss ways to speed up the process that led to China’s participation, two Iranian officials told Reuters.
Beijing’s covert role in the hack announced last week has shaken up dynamics in the Middle East, where for decades the United States has been the main mediator, flexing its security and diplomatic muscles.
“The Chinese showed their willingness to help Tehran and Riyadh narrow the gaps and overcome outstanding issues during the talks in Oman and Iraq,” said an Iranian diplomat involved in the talks.
The deal was sealed after a seven-year diplomatic break. For Saudi Arabia, the deal could mean improved security. In 2019, the kingdom blamed Iran for attacks on its oil facilities, which shut down half of its supplies.
Iran denied involvement. Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said that Saudi investments in Iran can now happen quickly.
Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran in 2016 after its embassy in Tehran was stormed during a dispute between the two countries over Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
The enmity between the two powers has threatened stability in the Middle East and fueled regional conflicts, including in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
Asked if the Saudi-Iranian agreement could be spoiled, Wang De, a senior Chinese diplomat involved in the talks in Beijing, told reporters that the rapprochement was a process without expectations that all issues would be resolved overnight.
“The important thing is for both sides to be sincere to improve relations,” Yang Liu, a Xinhua correspondent, said on Twitter.
Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most important Arab ally, began exploring ways to open dialogue with the Islamic Republic two years ago, a Saudi official said, in Iraq and Oman.
This led to a critical moment in December, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh. In a bilateral meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the president expressed his desire to mediate dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“The crown prince welcomed this and promised to send a summary of the previous rounds of dialogue to the Chinese side, a plan on what we think about how to resume these talks,” the Saudi official said.
The official added that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Beijing in February, and the Chinese presented Riyadh’s proposals, which were accepted by the Iranian side.
Chinese mediation “best choice”
An Iranian official said the agreement covered a range of issues, from security concerns to economic and political issues.
I will not go into details but we agreed that neither country would be a source of instability for the other country. The official said Iran would use its influence in the region, especially in Yemen, to help Riyadh’s security.
“The two sides will do their best to maintain security in the Persian Gulf, ensure the flow of oil, and work together to resolve regional issues, while Tehran and Riyadh will not engage in any military aggression against each other.”
A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Houthi group in Yemen for years.
It was not at all clear to what extent Iran has supported the Houthis, who share a Shiite ideology. Sunni states in the Gulf accuse Iran of interfering through Shiite proxies in the region, which Tehran denies.
Iran is the main supplier of weapons, training, ideological programmes, propaganda and expertise to the Houthis and we are the main victim. “Iran can and should do a lot,” the Saudi official said.
A regional source belonging to Khamenei’s inner circle said that Iran chose the senior Iranian national security official, Ali Shamkhani, to lead the negotiations because he is an Arab of Arab origin.
“The Chinese showed their willingness to help Tehran and Riyadh narrow the gaps and overcome outstanding issues during the talks in Oman and Iraq,” said the Iranian diplomat involved in the talks.
China was the better choice given Iran’s lack of trust in Washington and Beijing’s friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. An Iranian official familiar with the meetings said China would also benefit from a calm Middle East given its energy needs.
After decades of mistrust, the constant friction should come as no surprise. He added, “This agreement does not mean that there will be no issues or disagreements between Tehran and Riyadh. This means that whatever happens in the future, it will be in a “controlled” way, a well-informed Iranian source close to Iran’s decision-making elite said.