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DUBAI: Iran, eager to end its political and economic isolation, has been trying for two years to restore ties with longtime rival Saudi Arabia, the Arab heavyweight and oil powerhouse.

Last September, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lost patience with the slow pace of the bilateral talks and called his team to discuss ways to speed up the process, which led to China’s involvement, two Iranian officials told Reuters.

Beijing’s secretive role in the breakthrough announced last week has shaken dynamics in the Middle East, where the United States has been the main mediator for decades, flexing its security and diplomatic muscle.

“During the Oman-Iraq talks, the Chinese expressed their willingness to help Tehran and Riyadh narrow their differences and overcome outstanding issues,” said an Iranian diplomat involved in the talks.

The deal came after a seven-year diplomatic breakdown. For Saudi Arabia, a deal could mean improved security. In 2019, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for an attack on its oil facilities that knocked out half of its supply.

Iran denies involvement. The Houthi group in Yemen, which is allied with Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Saudi Arabian Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said Saudi investment in Iran could now happen soon.

Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran in 2016 after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked amid a dispute between the two countries over the execution of a prominent Shia Muslim cleric in Riyadh.

The hostility between the two powers has endangered stability in the Middle East and fueled regional conflicts including in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

Asked whether the Saudi-Iran deal could fall apart, Wang Di, a senior Chinese diplomat involved in the Beijing talks, told reporters that reconciliation is a process and that all issues are not expected to be resolved overnight.

“It is important that both sides have the sincerity to improve relations,” Xinhua reporter Yang Liu said on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most important Arab ally, began exploring ways to open dialogue with the Islamic Republic in Iraq and Oman two years ago, a Saudi official said.

That led to a pivotal moment in December, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Riyadh. During a bilateral meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the president expressed his desire to facilitate dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“The crown prince welcomed this and promised to send China a summary of previous rounds of dialogue, as well as our thoughts on how to resume them,” the Saudi official said.

In February, when Iranian President Ibrahim Raisy visited Beijing, China relayed Riyadh’s proposal, which Iran accepted, the official added.

China’s mediation “best choice”

An Iranian official said the deal covered a range of issues, from security to economic and political.

“I won’t go into detail, but we have agreed that neither country will be a source of instability for the other. Iran will use its influence in the region, especially in Yemen, to help Riyadh’s security,” the official said.

“The two sides will do their utmost to maintain the security of the Persian Gulf, ensure the flow of oil, and jointly resolve regional issues, while Tehran and Riyadh will not be involved in military aggression against each other.”

The Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels for years.

Exactly how much support Iran provides to the Houthi rebels, who have a Shia ideology, has been unclear. Sunni states in the Gulf accuse Iran of meddling through Shiite proxies in the region, which Tehran denies.

“Iran is the main supplier of arms, training, ideological programs, 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 in Khamenei’s inner circle said Iran had chosen its top national security official, Ali Shamkhani, to lead the talks because he is Arab.

“During the talks in Oman and Iraq, the Chinese expressed their willingness to help Tehran and Riyadh narrow their differences and resolve unresolved issues,” said an Iranian diplomat involved in the talks.

“Considering Iran’s lack of trust in Washington and Beijing’s friendly relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, China is the best option. Considering China’s energy needs, China will also benefit from a calm Middle East,” an Iranian official told reporters. said after the meeting briefing.

After decades of distrust, the ongoing friction shouldn’t come as a surprise. “This deal doesn’t mean that there won’t be any problems or conflicts between Tehran and Riyadh. It means that whatever happens in the future, it will be done in a ‘controlled’ way,” said an Iranian insider close to Iran’s decision-making elite. People said.


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