Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed Friday to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies after seven years of tensions. The major diplomatic breakthrough negotiated with China decreases the likelihood of armed conflict between the regional rivals, both directly and in proxy conflicts.
The deal was struck in Beijing amid China’s ceremonial National People’s Congress. It represents a major diplomatic victory for the Chinese as Gulf Arab states perceive the United States to be slowly withdrawing from the wider Middle East. It also comes as diplomats have been trying to end Yemen’s lengthy conflict, in which both Iran and Saudi Arabia are deeply entrenched.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has wanted to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, but the deal with Iran, Israel’s arch-rival, will complicate that. It also could make Israel feel more alone if it decides to carry out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program as it creeps closer to weapons-grade levels.
It was not immediately clear if the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will help end Lebanon’s political deadlock. The country has been run by a caretaker government since President Michel Aoun’s term ended in late October. Lebanon has been without a president since then amid deep divisions in the country’s parliament.
The powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group said earlier this week it backs Christian politician Sleiman Frangieh to become the country’s next president but there have been reports that Saudi Arabia opposes the group’s ally to become president.
Lebanon is in the grips of the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history. It’s rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the political class that has been running the small nation of 6 million people, including 1 million Syrian refugees, since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
Countries including oil-rich Gulf nations have said they will help Lebanon after the country implements reforms. That could release billions of dollars in investments and loans.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the agreement in a statement calling it an “important step that will lead to strengthening security and stability in the region.”
It added that the agreement will also lead to cooperation that will “reflect positively on the common interests of the peoples of the two countries in particular and the peoples of the region in general.”
After the Feb. 6 earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria, killing more than 50,000 people including more than 6,000 in Syria, Saudi Arabia was one of several Arab countries that delivered aid to government-held parts of Syria.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry admitted this week that there is a “consensus growing” among Gulf monarchies and other Arab countries that isolating Damascus is not working and dialogue is necessary. Syria’s membership in the Arab League, a confederation of Arab administrations, was suspended in 2011 for its brutal crackdown on protesters.
Syria’s conflict, which enters its 13th year next week, has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
Mroue reported from Beirut.
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