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China brokers talks to restore diplomatic ties between Middle East rivals

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're following a surprising announcement today, a breakthrough between big, rival countries. Iran and Saudi Arabia are restoring diplomatic relations. As anybody who travels or lives in that region knows, this is a big deal. They are two rivals across the Persian Gulf from one another - or the Arabian Gulf, depending on which country you're talking about. They've opposed each other in proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. The Saudis accused Iran of attacks in Saudi Arabia, and Iran has said Saudi Arabia wants to topple their regime. Now they're restoring relations. And even more surprising, the deal was brokered by China. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam is covering all this. Jackie, good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What, besides sending ambassadors across the way, have they agreed on?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, they are - as you say, they're going to try and reopen their embassies within about two months' time. You know, the one in - certainly in Tehran was closed about seven years ago, and that was when Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy there. And this was after the kingdom executed a leading Shia cleric. So those - you know, the embassies are going to reopen. But they're also - they've agreed to activate what's called a security cooperation agreement. And this was signed a couple of decades ago. So that's finally going to go ahead and reactivate an accord on trade - pardon me - trade and investment and the economy and that. So, you know, those are the sort of smaller details. The broader issue here, what's not on paper, is that this should help reduce tensions in the Gulf region. And that's really key for this agreement.

INSKEEP: What has made them rivals, if not enemies?

NORTHAM: Well, you know, as I said, there was this attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. And then a few years ago, there was a drone attack on one of Saudi Arabia's main oil facilities at Abqaiq, and that was blamed on Iran. Then Riyadh accused Iran of sponsoring and arming Houthi rebels in Yemen, which, you know, launched attacks on the kingdom. So, you know, you have all of that going on. But if we pull back the lens a bit, you know, this is really a rivalry between two major powers in the Gulf region and in the Islamic world. Iran is a Shia nation; Saudi Arabia a Sunni. And they both vie for leadership of the Islamic world. And - you know, and then, politically, Iran tends to ally with Russia and Saudi Arabia to - you know, allies with the U.S. So you've got all that going on, and that's really led to, you know, confrontations over the years.

INSKEEP: I appreciate the nuance there, Jackie. The religious division is a big deal. If you go through Iran and meet a Sunni Muslim, they will be watched by the authorities. The same thing will be true with Shias in Saudi Arabia. But it's also about power. It's also about regional dominance. It's also about two oil powers that have a lot of money. Why would China, though...

NORTHAM: Sure.

INSKEEP: ...Be the country that would broker a deal between them?

NORTHAM: Well, it could, you know, be China's, you know, attempt to ascending in the world and on the geopolitical stage - let's face it. I mean, Iraq had tried to mediate between these two in the past, and they didn't have enough power to bring it about. China simply has more clout than something like Iraq. And, you know, it's also seen as a neutral player in the Gulf region. It also buys a lot of oil from both Saudi Arabia and Iran. You know, there's a lot of self-congratulation going on today on China's side, not surprisingly. Its foreign minister said China was a good-faith and reliable mediator and that this demonstrates its responsibility as a major nation. And, you know, that could (inaudible) as a swipe at the U.S., which has been the major outside power in the Middle East till now.

INSKEEP: Yeah, and there's much more to discuss here later, including the U.S. reaction to this agreement between a U.S. enemy and a U.S. ally. NPR's Jackie Northam. Thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.