BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia and Iran announced an agreement in China on Friday to resume relations more than seven years after severing ties, a major breakthrough in a bitter rivalry that has long divided the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked and burned by Iranian protesters, angered by the kingdom’s execution of prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. The cleric had emerged as a leading figure in protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, a Shiite-majority region in the Sunni-majority nation.
Saudi Arabia accused Iran of sowing strife in its minority-Shiite communities, which have long complained of discrimination and neglect from authorities in Riyadh. A month after Nimr’s execution, the kingdom put 32 people on trial on charges of spying for Iran, including 30 Saudi Shiites. Fifteen were ultimately given death sentences.
In the years since, Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of supplying weapons to the Houthis, Shiite rebels in neighboring Yemen who have waged a grinding war against a Saudi-led coalition seeking to restore the country’s Western-backed government.
Tensions reached new heights in 2019 after a wave of Houthi drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, knocking out half of the kingdom’s oil output. At the time, U.S. officials said they believed the assault was launched from Iranian territory. Tehran denied involvement.
The Obama administration sought to mend ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, seeing the rivalry as a source of sectarian tension across the region, but made little headway.
On Friday, John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the United States welcomed the agreement but noted that Washington was not “directly involved.”
Kirby said it was too early to tell whether the deal would hold. “It really does remain to be seen whether the Iranians are going to honor their side,” he said. “This is not a regime that typically does honor its word. So we hope that they do. We’d like to see this war in Yemen end.”
Yemen has enjoyed a rare reprieve from fighting since April, when a truce sponsored by the United Nations went into effect. Though the truce expired in October, the peace has largely held, and back-channel talks between the Houthis and the Saudis have resumed.
These negotiations “are also a reflection of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement,” said Maysaa Shuja al-Deen, a senior researcher at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies.
But negotiations have stalled, partly over the Houthis’ insistence on signing a deal with the Saudi government — not the Western-backed Yemeni government.
The Yemeni Embassy in Washington responded defiantly to Friday’s announcement, tweeting, “The rogue Iranian regime is still sending lethal weapons to the terrorist Houthi militia in Yemen, and the Yemeni embassy in Tehran is still occupied.”
The Houthis, meanwhile, appeared to approve of the agreement. “The region needs the restoration of normal relations between its countries, so that the Islamic nation can recover its security lost as a result of foreign interventions,” spokesman Mohamed Abdel Salam tweeted.
Iran and Saudi Arabia had been exploring a rapprochement since 2021, participating in rounds of talks hosted by Iraq and Oman.
“The return of normal relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia places large capacities at the disposal of the two countries, the region and the Islamic world,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian tweeted Friday.
For Tehran, the agreement comes at a moment of deepening international isolation, as well as mounting unrest at home amid months of anti-government protests. “Facing a dead end in nuclear negotiations with the United States, and shunned by the European Union because of its arms exports to Russia … Iran has scored a major diplomatic victory,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Saudi Arabia has expressed growing alarm about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and is exploring diplomatic normalization with Israel, a longtime foe. During the Trump years, Israel began to normalize relations with Persian Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as part of the U.S.-backed Abraham Accords.
Building on the accords with Saudi Arabia is a priority for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spoken of “expanding the circle of peace” in the region to counter Iran.
China’s well-publicized role in the Iranian-Saudi deal was probably intended to send a message to major powers, including the United States, “that the hub for the Middle East is shifting,” said Maria Luisa Fantappie, special adviser for the Middle East and North Africa at the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva.
The Biden administration has called China’s rise the single greatest geopolitical challenge of the 21st century, though Kirby declined on Friday to criticize China’s role in brokering the rapprochement.
Beijing’s involvement is “quite surprising,” even for China analysts, said Camille Lons, a researcher in the Middle East office at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Beijing has largely avoided intervening politically in the Middle East, focusing instead on deepening economic ties. China is the largest importer of energy from the region, and Lons said that “there is a lot of interest” among major players, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, in securing long-term access to Chinese markets.
In this case, Beijing appears to have mainly served as host and facilitator for the signing of the final accord, she said. Still, the agreement sends a “very strong” symbolic message, Lons added, pointing out the timing of the deal — signed just days before the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“China has truly arrived as a strategic actor in the gulf,” said Kristin Smith Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute.
Hudson and Parker reported from Washington. Louisa Loveluck in London and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Phoenix contributed to this report.