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Iran reopens its embassy in Saudi Arabia as the Gulf rivals restore ties

Women walk past the closed Iranian embassy in the diplomatic quarter of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on April 11.
Fayez Nureldine
/
AFP via Getty Images
Women walk past the closed Iranian embassy in the diplomatic quarter of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on April 11.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran reopened its embassy in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, according to Saudi media, marking another milestone toward restoring ties and lowering tensions between the powerful Gulf neighbors. It comes seven years after the two cut off diplomatic ties in a rivalry that has reverberated across the region.

The reopened embassy could ease travel between the countries as they work to resume direct flights, increase trade and restore business ties. Although Saudi Arabia has not yet reopened its embassy in Tehran, Iranian pilgrims will be able to apply more easily for Saudi visas for the hajj pilgrimage and the smaller umrah pilgrimage to Mecca, once ties are fully restored.

News of the reopening was confirmed Tuesday by the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news network. Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani was quoted on Monday saying that Iranian diplomats had already started helping Iranian pilgrims with the upcoming hajj, which starts later this month. He said Iran's consulate will also reopen in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this week.

The two countries agreed in March to restore ties in a deal brokered by China, though both sides had been in Iraqi- and Omani-mediated talks for years prior.

The deal clinched by Beijing is part of a broader realignment reshaping the region, including Saudi Arabia's decision to begin restoring ties with Syria, which is backed by Iran, and its steps toward ending its long-running war in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthis.

Saudi Arabia has since invited Iran's president to visit the kingdom, according to Iranian officials, although Saudi Arabia has not confirmed the invitation. The two countries' foreign ministers have met face-to-face.

The rapprochement has even prompted discussions between Egypt and Iran to boost their diplomatic ties. That effort is being mediated by Oman, whose leader recently visited Cairo and Tehran.

Iran's embassy reopened the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to arrive in Saudi Arabia, where he has vowed to push for normalization with Israel.

Blinken also told a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington on Monday that Iran poses a grave danger to Israel, and that while the Biden administration believes in diplomacy, "all options will be on the table" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Saudi Arabia, too, remains deeply concerned about Iran's nuclear program, as well as the reach of its drones and missiles that the U.S. said were behind a major attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019.

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran were severed in 2016 after a mass execution in Saudi Arabia that included Nimr al-Nimr, a popular Saudi Shia cleric. He had led anti-government protests demanding greater rights for the minority Muslim sect in the predominantly Sunni Muslim country.

His execution prompted protests in Tehran and the ransacking of Saudi Arabia's embassy there, leading to the rupture in ties.

The kingdom has continued to carry out mass executions and has executed Shia protesters in the years since.

A number of have been executed in recent weeks, according to official Saudi statements and rights groups monitoring the cases.

Three Saudi men from the country's Shia-populated Eastern Province were executed on Sunday after being found guilty on charges of terrorism and assaulting security personnel. One of the men had also been charged with rape.

Late last month, the kingdom executed two Shia Bahraini men after they were convicted on terrorism and protest-related charges, following what Amnesty International said was a "grossly unfair" trial. Three other men from the Shia-dominated region of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia were also executed in May on similar charges related to terrorism. The executions have received coverage in Iranian media.

Human Rights Watch said Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf countries, continues to use overbroad provisions contained within terrorism laws to suppress dissent and target religious minorities.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.