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Iran and Saudi: longtime rivals now pledge to work together

Iran reopens long-shut Saudi embassy, confirming detente

After being at daggers drawn for years, longtime Middle East rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia have now pledged to work together to bring stability to the troubled region.

On Thursday the foreign ministers of the rival Shiite Muslim (Iran) and Sunni Muslim (Saudi) powers, which have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen, held talks in Beijing, following a surprise China-brokered deal in March to restore diplomatic relations.

AFP looks back at key moments in their rocky relationship:

– April 1979: Iran revolution –

When Iranian revolutionaries overthrow the US-backed shah in 1979 and form an Islamic republic, Sunni-led governments in the region accuse the fledgling state of seeking to “export” its revolution.

In 1980, Saddam Hussein’s secular regime in Iraq attacks neighbouring Iran, triggering an eight-year war in which oil-rich Saudi, a key US ally, supports Baghdad.

– July 1987: ties cut –

In July 1987, Saudi security forces in Mecca — the holiest site in Islam — crack down on an anti-US protest by Iranian pilgrims. More than 400 people are killed, mostly Iranians.

Demonstrators ransack the Saudi embassy in Tehran and, in April 1988, Riyadh breaks off diplomatic relations for several years and Iranian pilgrims stay away from Saudi holy places until 1991.

– 2011-2014: opposing sides in Syria, Yemen –

From 2011 on, Iran and Saudi back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war.

Tehran supports President Bashar al-Assad with military forces and funds whereas Riyadh backs Sunni rebels but also joins a US-led coalition to fight Sunni extremists from the Islamic State group.

Saudi Arabia and Iran also take opposing sides in the Yemen conflict: Riyadh and Washington accuse Tehran of arming the Huthi rebels, a charge it strongly denies. A Saudi-led coalition launches a campaign of air strikes against the rebels in March 2015.

– Jan 2016: ties cut again –

In January 2016, Saudi Arabia executes prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a driving force behind anti-government protests, on “terrorism” charges.

Protesters attack Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, and Riyadh again severs ties.

– March 2016: Hezbollah, Qatar –

In November 2017, Saudi-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri suddenly and mysteriously announces his resignation, citing Iran’s “grip” on his country through the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, in a statement issued from Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia is widely suspected of forcing him to step down. Hariri recants his resignation after mediation by French President Emmanuel Macron.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia and its allies sever ties with the tiny gas-rich Gulf monarchy of Qatar and impose a blockade on it, accusing Doha of being too close to Iran and backing extremism.

Under pressure from the United States, Saudi Arabia ends the embargo three years later.

– Oct 2017: Iran nuclear accord –

In October 2017, Saudi Arabia backs US President Donald Trump after he walks out on a 2015 deal with global powers aimed at limiting Tehran’s nuclear activities.

On March 15, 2018 Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warns that if Tehran gets a nuclear weapon, “we will follow suit as soon as possible”.

– March 2023: restoring relations –

In a surprise move, on March 10, 2023, Tehran and Riyadh announce plans to resume ties as part of a deal brokered by China.

A year earlier, Yemen’s Saudi-led government and Iran-backed rebels had agreed a truce, signalling moves towards a detente.

On April 6, 2023, the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Prince Faisal bin Farhan, meet in Beijing for the first high-level talks between their countries in seven years.

They pledge to work together to bring “security and stability” to their region.

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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