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Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to reopen embassies, resume flights in China-brokered thaw

The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia and Iran met in Beijing on Thursday and agreed to restore flights between the two longtime Middle East rivals, resume bilateral governmental and business visits, and begin preparations for reopening embassies and consulates in each other's country for the first time since 2016, according to a joint statement. Tehran and Riyadh restored diplomatic relations in March, in a deal brokered by China.  

The parley between Saudi Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Iran's Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was "the first formal meeting of senior diplomats from the two nations since 2016, when the kingdom broke ties with Iran after protesters invaded Saudi diplomatic posts there," in response to Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, The Associated Press reports. It also "represents a major diplomatic victory for the Chinese as Gulf Arab states perceive the United States slowly withdrawing from the wider Middle East." 

Since the Chinese-brokered detente was announced, "Saudi Arabia has also neared an agreement to restore diplomatic ties with Syria, which embraced Iran over the past decade of civil war," The Wall Street Journal reports. "Those negotiations were mediated by Russia, leaving the U.S. on the sidelines of another major development in the Middle East." CIA Director William Burns, in an unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia this week, "expressed frustration with the Saudis," telling "Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that the U.S. has felt blindsided by Riyadh's rapprochement with Iran and Syria," the Journal reports, citing people familiar with the matter. 

China, unlike the U.S., has diplomatic ties with Iran as well as Saudi Arabia. It also holds sway in Riyadh because it is one of the top buyers of Saudi oil. Iran benefits from the thaw because it eases the country's global isolation after brutal crackdowns on recent protests and the collapse of efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.