Iran-Saudi vow to bring Mideast ‘security, stability’

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Top diplomats from Middle Eastern rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia met in Beijing on Thursday, pledging to work together to bring “security and stability” to their troubled region after a surprise deal struck by China .

In a joint statement issued after talks between Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan, both sides pledged to continue working together to improve ties.

“Both sides emphasized the importance of continuing to implement and activate the Beijing Agreement in a way that expands mutual trust and areas of cooperation and helps create security, stability and prosperity in the region,” said the statement.

Tehran and Riyadh announced a deal that Beijing broke in March to restore relations that were severed seven years ago when protesters in Iran attacked Saudi diplomatic missions.

The ministers’ visit to Beijing came when French President Emmanuel Macron and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen were also in the Chinese capital, trying to make Europe’s case in a meeting with Xi Jinping to end the conflict in Ukraine.

The potential for a shock rapprochement between predominantly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and Shiite-majority Iran, strongly at odds with Western governments over its nuclear activities, relations which reshaping across a region characterized by years of turmoil.

The two sides “discussed and exchanged views with the emphasis on the official restoration of bilateral relations and the executive steps towards reopening the embassies and consulates of the two countries”, Iran’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Saudi state television channel Al Ekhbariya broadcast footage of the pair shaking hands in front of the Saudi and Iranian flags and then talking and smiling.

In a readout by state broadcaster CCTV, Beijing praised “the first official meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers in more than seven years” and Beijing’s “active intervention” in diplomacy.

Under last month’s agreement, the two countries are to reopen their embassies and missions within two months and implement security and economic cooperation deals signed more than 20 years ago.

Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran in January 2016, after protesters attacked its embassy in Tehran and the consulate in the Iranian city of Mashhad over Riyadh’s execution of Saudi opposition Shiite cleric Nimr al- Nimr.

Discussions between the foreign ministers are expected to continue with the visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Riyadh.

Raisi accepted an invitation from King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber said on Monday.

– Challenge to USA –

Iran and Saudi Arabia support competing sides in several conflict zones across the region, including in Yemen, where the Huthi rebels backed by Tehran and Riyadh lead a military coalition supporting the government.

Both sides are also opposed to influence in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Riyadh’s traditional ally Washington welcomed the detente agreement, but said it remains to be seen whether the Iranians will “honor their side of the bargain”.

China’s success in bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia together has challenged the United States’ long-established role as the main outside power broker in the Middle East.

An expert told AFP that Beijing’s role was likely to increase confidence that any deal would stick.

“Because China is a strong supporter of Iran, Saudi Arabia should have more confidence in Iran’s ability to abide by the agreement, an issue that has always been in doubt,” said Joel Rubin, former Deputy Secretary United States Assistant State for Legislative Affairs.

“Thursday’s meeting suggests that the process has not gone off track since Beijing’s announcement last month”, said Ali Vaez, Director of the International Crisis Group’s Iran Project.

“But it is still early days to assess whether this is just a tactical detente or a way-station towards a strategic rapprochement.”

– Heating links –

Officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia held several rounds of dialogue in Baghdad and Oman before meeting in Beijing.

In 2016 several Gulf countries followed Riyadh’s move to cut ties with Tehran, but are taking the lead in restoring diplomatic relations.

Iran welcomed an Emirati ambassador last September, after a six-year absence, and on Wednesday named its own ambassador to the UAE, after a gap of almost eight years.

Last year Iran said Kuwait sent its first ambassador to Tehran since 2016.

Iran also welcomed a possible rapprochement with Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, which has in the past accused Iran of supporting a Shiite insurgency in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, a charge Tehran denies.

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