China to host Saudi, Iranian foreign ministers as detente moves forward

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Less than a month after agreeing to restore ties in a landmark deal brokered by China, top diplomats from Saudi Arabia and Iran will meet in Beijing on Thursday. The meeting is the first formal contact between the foreign ministers of the two countries, who last met in New York in September 2014, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

The Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir Abdollahian will discuss how to advance the agreement announced last month and previous cooperation deals. to activate this which was signed between the two countries in 1998. and 2001.

The two countries agreed to resume relations on March 10 after months of China-sponsored talks between delegations led by Saudi national security adviser Musaad al-Aiban and his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkhani, according to a statement partners from Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. released by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The statement also emphasized the need to respect the sovereignty of states and not interfere in their internal affairs.

The agreement was a major breakthrough in the region after years of tension between the Arab Gulf countries and Iran over the growing influence of those countries in the region through its proxies and its expanding nuclear program.

An Iranian official told Reuters that the talks will also include the reopening of embassies and the exchange of ambassadors.

Saudi Arabia officially cut diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016 after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was ransacked and set on fire during protests against the execution of dissident Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Riyadh left the embassy staff and asked the Iranian diplomatic mission to leave the kingdom.

The strained relationship between the two regional foes goes back a long way. After the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Iran provided financial and military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his campaign against the rebels, who were backed by Saudi Arabia.

Tensions rose when Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015, leading an Arab military coalition to support the internationally recognized government fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

During the war in Yemen, the Houthis launched dozens of drones and fired missiles towards critical facilities in the kingdom and border areas. In 2019, Riyadh accused Tehran of supplying the weapons used in a major attack against Saudi state-owned oil facilities. Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the drone attack that targeted Aramco facilities in Abqaiq, in eastern Saudi Arabia. The attack forced the kingdom to temporarily shut down half of its total oil production, sending world oil prices soaring and oil supplies briefly disrupted.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is also visible in Lebanon. The traditional financial support given to the small Mediterranean country by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries has diminished as the influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah has grown. In October 2021, the Gulf kingdom recalled its ambassador about critical comments from a Lebanese minister regarding the Yemeni war and the Saudi-led coalition. The Saudi envoy returned to Beirut in 2022.

Riyadh has repeatedly accused Hezbollah of running a drug-trafficking network in the Arab Gulf region.

All eyes are now on the Saudi-Iranian détente and how it will affect the proxy wars that have been going on for years.

Major regional realignments are already underway in Syria. After years of regional isolation, Syria appears to be being welcomed back into the Arab fold. The Saudi foreign minister is expected to travel to Damascus in the coming weeks to formally invite Assad to attend the Arab League summit scheduled for May in Riyadh.

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