Iran-Saudi rapprochement moves ahead with foreign ministers' meeting in Beijing

Saudi Arabia’s Prince Faisal bin Farhan met his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahia is in talks with Saudi Arabia. Reuters
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Talks over sticking points between Iran and Saudi Arabia are moving ahead after a meeting between their foreign ministers on Thursday in Beijing, where the initial agreement for rapprochement was signed last month.

The meeting between Saudi Arabia’s Prince Faisal bin Farhan and his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian represented a vital step towards the restoration of diplomatic ties.

News of Prince Faisal and Mr Amirabdollahian’s meeting was released this week by Asharq Al Awasat newspaper, which cited an unnamed source.

Choosing China “came as an extension of Beijing's positive role in reaching the agreement and facilitating communication between the two countries”, a source in Riyadh told the Saudi-owned newspaper.

Higher-level meetings between Saudi Arabian and Iranian leadership are expected to follow, after Iran confirmed it had accepted an invitation for President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Riyadh, according to Iran’s first vice president, Mohammed Mokhber.

Following the meeting on Thursday, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume flights and bilateral visits of official and private sector delegations, in addition to issuing visas for citizens, according to a joint statement signed by the two countries.

Both sides will also reopen diplomatic representations within the two-month period stipulated in an agreement brokered by China last month.

The official Iranian news agency, Irna, said that as part of Thursday’s agreement, the two long-time regional rivals would reopen representative offices in their respective capitals and in two other major cities — Mashhad in Iran and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

Analysts who have been following the thaw in ties between the two countries believe that a meeting between Mr Raisi and Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to take place after the two-month deadline Riyadh and Tehran set to reopen embassies and consulates.

In 2016, Riyadh severed ties with Tehran after protesters raided Saudi diplomatic posts in Iran following the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric in the kingdom. It was only one of many issues between the long-standing rivals.

Since April 2021, the two sides have held five rounds of negotiations in Baghdad and several mediation efforts from Oman.

“There has been a consensus from Iran on their relationship with the GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia, which would be a crown jewel in that clout for them," Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The National.

"The back channels that happened both under the Rouhani and Raisi administrations, as my understanding is that the Iranians have always pushed for having established diplomatic ties between their countries, and then from there working out the different sort of regional issues where there are differences and how to overcome them.

“From the Saudi kingdom, they want to get certain guarantees and assurances, particularly in the Yemen conflict and cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, before they are willing to actually move forward with the big bilateral issues,” Ms Geranmayeh added.

For Saudi Arabia, the deal could mean improved security guarantees. The kingdom has blamed Iran for arming the Yemeni Houthi rebels who carried out missile and drone attacks on its cities and oil facilities.

In 2019, Riyadh blamed an attack on Aramco oil facilities, which knocked out half of its oil output, directly on Iran.

Part of the initial agreement signed in March, analysts say, addresses Saudi Arabia’s security concerns.

The head of the Gulf Research Centre, Abdulaziz Sager, said the initial Saudi-Iranian agreement was “very important”, suggesting that “Iran has responded to China's demand to improve relations with neighbouring countries, and that was during Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi's visit to Beijing” in February.

“China can be an important party to play the role of the implementer or guarantor of this Saudi-Iranian agreement,” Mr Sager told Saudi state television after the deal.

“The requirements of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the countries in the region were to stop Iran from its interventionist and expansionist policy in the internal Arab affairs, which was stipulated in the agreement by talking about respect for sovereignty,” he added.

Joel Rubin, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, agreed that Beijing's role would likely increase confidence that any deal would stick.

"Because China is a strong backer of Iran, Saudi should have more confidence in Iran's ability to comply with the agreement, an issue that has always been in doubt," Mr Rubin told AFP.

Those who have been following the reconciliation process also noted the speed with which Saudi Arabia and Iran have been following suit, following the agreement to initiate meetings and agreements within the two-month deadline set last month.

"It does seem there is interest on both sides to meet the two-month timeline announced in March for reopening embassies, and both sides seem to be fast-tracking this process," Ms Geranmayeh said.

Saudi political analyst Mohammed Alsaaed said the agreement signed on Thursday was the natural next step in restoring Saudi-Iranian relations.

"The agreements on the resumption of commercial flights, exchange of both private and official delegations between the two countries are all a stepping stone toward the full restoration of diplomatic ties we're expected to see as we approach the two-month deadline," Mr Alsaaed said.

The continuing reconciliation will also mean the possibility of ending years of war in Yemen where the Houthi rebels have been supported both politically and militarily by Iran.

“It is expected that the Islamic Republic of Iran will enter as a main mediator on the Yemeni issue and try to bring together the parties to the negotiating table, in addition to Saudi Arabia. The current truce in Yemen has a higher possibility of turning into permanent peace once both sides re-establish diplomatic ties,” Ahmad Mahdi, a professor of political affairs at Qom University, told Sky News Arabia.

Recent signs of a thaw in ties between Iran and its Gulf neighbours have also been gaining momentum after Tehran named an ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, nearly eight years after his predecessor left.

“The foreign ministry has named Reza Ameri as the Islamic Republic of Iran's new ambassador to the United Arab Emirates,” Iran's official Irna news agency reported late on Tuesday.

The move comes after Iran welcomed an Emirati ambassador last September, ending a six-year absence.

Iran also signalled its willingness to repair ties with another Gulf country with which it has had long-standing issues. Late last month, after the initial deal signed with Saudi Arabia in China, Mr Amirabdollahian said that Tehran hoped for steps to be made towards the normalisation of ties with Bahrain.

“An agreement was reached two months ago for Iranian and Bahraini technical delegations to visit the embassies of the two countries,” Mr Amirabdollahian told Irna.

Saudi writer and political researcher Mubarak Al Aati believes the Saudi-Iranian agreement will usher the region into a new phase, saying that “the agreement will block a lot of the countries lurking in the region”.

“The continuing agreement reaffirms that the countries of the region are able to gather their positions and take the initiative once again to address their issues whenever intentions are sincere, and there is a guarantor of any agreement,” Mr Al Aati said.

Mr Al Aati said that while Saudi Arabia still has many concerns, recent developments on the diplomatic front seem to be pointing in the right direction.

“This matter will need more time to prove intentions and sincerity in dealing with this agreement", he said, while describing the meeting of foreign ministers as "an important development towards a final agreement”.

Updated: April 06, 2023, 12:06 PM