Archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed Friday to restore diplomatic relations, a dramatic breakthrough brokered by China after years of soaring tensions between the Middle Eastern powerhouses.

The deal, which will see the two leading oil producers reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, was sealed during a meeting in Beijing — a boost to China’s efforts to rival the United States as a broker on the global stage.

The agreement could put a damper on Israel’s ongoing work to normalize relations with its Arab neighbors, and complicate U.S. and other Western powers’ bid to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Saudi-Iran talks were held because of a “shared desire to resolve the disagreements between them through dialogue and diplomacy, and in light of their brotherly ties,” according to a joint communique from Tehran, Riyadh and Beijing that was published by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The agreement followed intensive negotiations between Ali Shamkhani, a close adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, and Saudi Minister of State Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, according to the statement.

It added that the foreign ministers from both countries would “meet to implement this, arrange for the return of their ambassadors, and discuss means of enhancing bilateral relations.”

After the agreement was announced, a White House National Security Council spokesperson told NBC News that the U.S. welcomed “any efforts to help end the war in Yemen and de-escalate tensions in the Middle East region.” 

“De-escalation and diplomacy together with deterrence are key pillars of the policy President Biden outlined during his visit to the region last year,” the spokesperson said.

Initial reaction from Israel was not positive. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted that it was “a dangerous development” for his country and “a fatal blow” to the effort to build a regional coalition against Iran, which has said it intends to wipe the Jewish state off the map.

Simmering tensions

Tensions between Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is majority Shia, have dominated the region for decades.

The two countries have been locked in an intensifying struggle, their rivalry exacerbated by proxy conflicts, including the war in Yemen.

A Saudi-led coalition armed with U.S. weaponry entered the war on the side of Yemen’s exiled government and against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in 2015. The conflict has killed more than 150,000 people, created a dire humanitarian crisis and left Riyadh embroiled in a costly war it might be eager to withdraw from to focus on domestic issues.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the site of its two holiest cities, has historically seen itself as the leader of the Muslim world. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 shook Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms, which saw the new regime in Tehran as a rival.

While tensions brewed for years, Saudi Arabia broke off ties in 2016 after protesters stormed its diplomatic posts in Iran and set fire to its embassy in Tehran. 

Days earlier, Saudi Arabia had executed the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

“Clearing up the misunderstandings and looking to the future in Tehran-Riyadh relations will definitely lead to the development of regional stability and security, and the increase of cooperation between the countries of the Persian Gulf and the Islamic world to manage the existing challenges,” Shamkhani said Friday after signing the deal, according to Press TV.

Ties with Washington

Saudi Arabia has historically been vital to American interests in the region, but ties between the two countries have been strained by a number of issues, including allegations of Saudi ties to terrorism, in particular to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.

After the CIA concluded that the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the October 2018 slaying and dismembering of Washington Post columnist Jamal KhashoggiJoe Biden vowed during the 2020 election campaign to make the country an international “pariah.”

With global oil supplies affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine, Biden visited Saudi Arabia last July in a bid to reset ties and encourage efforts to end the war in Yemen.  

The U.S. and Iran, meanwhile, have been increasingly at odds over Tehran’s advancing nuclear program, anti-regime protests and its drone deliveries to Russia. 

Having tried and so far failed to revive the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, the Biden administration has been tightening economic pressure on Iran and has sent a signal that military force remains an option if all other means fail to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

The 2015 accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action or JCPOA, was designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and imposed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear activities in return for an easing of U.S. and international economic sanctions. But then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 and reimposed an array of sanctions.

Talks to revive the deal were shelved in recent months amid the Iranian regime’s crackdown on the protests.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are viewed as a grave threat by Israel, with the two countries involved in an escalating shadow war. Israel has also reportedly been engaged in its own talks with Saudi Arabia about normalizing relations, and it remains to be seen what Friday’s deal will mean for its hopes of leveraging mutual rivalry with Iran to improve ties with Arab states.

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