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Iran and Saudi Arabia agree on resuming ties, re-opening embassies

Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish relations on Friday, after seven years of hostility that had threatened stability and security in the Gulf adding fuel to conflicts in the Middle East from Yemen to Syria.

The deal was announced after four days of previously undisclosed talks in Beijing between Iran’s top security official, Ali Shamkhani, and Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban.

Tehran and Riyadh agreed “to resume diplomatic relations between them and re-open their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months”, according to a statement issued by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and China.

“The agreement includes their affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs.”

They also agreed to activate a security co-operation agreement signed in 2001, as well as another earlier accord on trade, economy, and investment, and thanked China, as well as Iraq and Oman for hosting earlier talks in 2021 and 2022.

A senior Iranian security official said Friday’s agreement had been endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“That is why Shamkhani traveled to China as the supreme leader’s representative,” the official told Reuters. “The establishment wanted to show that the top authority in Iran backed this decision.”

A White House national security spokesperson said the United States was aware of reports of the agreement and welcomed any efforts to help end the war in Yemen and de-escalate tensions in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran in 2016 after its embassy in Tehran was stormed during a dispute between the two countries over Riyadh’s execution of a Shi’ite Muslim cleric.

The two leading Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim powers in the Middle East have been at odds for years, and backed opposite sides in proxy wars from Yemen to Syria and elsewhere. The Yemen conflict alone, widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has killed tens of thousands of people causing a humanitarian crisis in its wake.

Yemen’s opposing sides

The chief negotiator of Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi movement, which is concentrated in the north of the country, put out in a tweet on Friday that the region needs the resumption of “normal ties” between its countries, following the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Tehran.

“The region needs the resumption of normal ties between its countries for the Islamic nation to reclaim its lost security as a result of foreign interference,” Mohammed Abdulsalam said.

The agreement might be welcomed with less enthusiasm, however, by the other side of the conflict in Yemen. The separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) said coalition allies, Saudi Arabia and UAE, have been kept in the dark about the Saudi-Houthi talks and warned against any deal that goes beyond the parameters of United Nations-led peace efforts.

The distrust and rising tensions in the south among nominal allies complicate wider peace efforts. Renewed violence would shatter 10 months of relative calm, the longest stretch in the war, under a U.N.-brokered truce deal that lapsed in October.

Saudi Arabia, which wants to quit a costly war, has been negotiating directly with the Houthis to reinstate the truce.

“Our friends in Riyadh isolated everyone […] Maybe it helps in the negotiations, but it creates skepticism among friends and stakeholders,” STC official Amr Al Bidh told a virtual news briefing.

“If it’s regarding the truce and it stays at that stage […] that is fine we can engage on it constructively. But if it goes more deeply than that and we are not part of it, it is a matter of concern for us. It can’t be binding on us,” he said.

The STC, which twice seized Aden from the internationally recognized government before a power-sharing deal brokered by Riyadh, would not accept dictates on governance, resources or security in the oil-producing south, Bidh said.

Yemen’s Saudi-backed Political Leadership Council (PLC), a presidential body set up last year, lacks a unifying strategy among members who share an enemy in the Houthis.

Bidh also criticized the creation of a new Saudi-backed military force in the south, describing it as a “unilateral decision” taken by the PLC head which could cause “instability”.

The STC ultimately seeks a separate South Yemen, a secessionist goal opposed by other PLC members.

The U.N. special envoy has lauded intensified efforts for an expanded truce but stressed the need for an inclusive approach for a sustainable political resolution of the multifaceted war.

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