After striking their historic peace deal which was mediated by China in Beijing over a week ago, Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to make strikes toward full normalization of ties, after being archenemies for decades – and before that their peoples having been rivals for centuries when it comes to the religious Shia-Sunni divide.
An Iranian official has announced Sunday that the King of Saudi Arabia has issued a formal invitation to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Riyadh in an unprecedented move. Raisi is said to have “welcomed” the invite from King Salman. Now what remains is setting a date.
Via Reuters: China’s director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi (C), Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (R) and Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban (L) meet in Beijing.
“In a letter to President Raisi… the King of Saudi Arabia welcomed the deal between the two brotherly countries, [and] invited him to Riyadh,” Mohammad Jamshidi, the Iranian president’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, said on Twitter.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the upcoming meeting. Additionally FM Hossein Amirabdollahian said that “An agreement was reached two months ago for Iranian and Bahraini technical delegations to visit the embassies of the two countries.”
He added, “We hope that some obstacles between Iran and Bahrain will be removed and we will take basic steps to reopen the embassies.”
Such an official head of state visit hasn’t taken place in over 20 years, with the last Iranian president to visit the kingdom being President Mohammad Khatami in February 1998. That visit in the late 90’s was the first trip by an Iranian president to Saudi Arabia since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution.
Last week, Henry Kissinger was cited in The Washington Post as calling the Saudi-Iran diplomatic breakthrough “a substantial change in the strategic situation in the Middle East.” According to more of the well-known former Secretary of State’s commentary:
The Saudis, who have been among Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East for decades, “are now balancing their security by playing off the US against China,” he explained.
According to Kissinger, Riyadh’s actions are comparable to what he himself accomplished in the early 1970s when, as secretary of state in the Nixon administration, he helped achieve rapprochement with Beijing amid its tensions with Moscow.
This could also eventually usher in a new era of hoped-for regional stability. Not only has the regional rivalry, which intensified most during the decade of the proxy war in Syria which began in 2011, been set amid a centuries-long divide over correct interpretation of Islam (Shia Iran vs. Sunni Saudi Arabia), but it has also spilled over in places like Yemen, scene of another grinding proxy war which pit Shia rebels against a Saudi-backed government.
The Saudis and Iranians also clash in supporting rival political factions inside Lebanon, with Tehran being the Shia paramilitary group Hezbollah’s biggest backer. For these reasons, accusations of supporting terrorism have been frequently hurled back-and-forth over the years. Iranian state media, for example, has long charged the Saudis with being a prime covert backer of the Islamic State (ISIS) in their drive to overthrow President Assad in Syria.