Iranian, Saudi top envoys meet in China on deal that could change the Mideast Their highest level public meeting in years was held in China, which brokered an agreement last month.

Top Saudi and Iranian envoys meet in China for a deal that could remake the region

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Two big oil producers are such bitter rivals, they don't even agree on what to call the body of water that separates them.


Iran is on the northern shore of what's commonly called the Persian Gulf. That's a nod to Iran, which was once called Persia. Saudi Arabia is just south of that same gulf. It's a majority Arab country, and people often called it the Arabian Gulf. Now, aside from geography, both nations have spent their oil money on an arms race and proxy wars, but now they're mending relations. And their foreign ministers met today.

INSKEEP: That meeting was in Beijing. China has been brokering their talks. NPR's Aya Batrawy is appropriately in between the two nations of Iran and Saudi Arabia. She's in Dubai. Welcome to the program.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: How big a step is this meeting?

BATRAWY: So this is big. I mean, this is the first time the foreign ministers from both countries are meeting face to face in more than seven years. In 2016, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shia cleric as part of a mass execution. And Iranian protesters, they responded by ransacking Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran. So tensions were high for years after that. But a couple years ago, they started quietly meeting to cool things down. But this is the first time we see the foreign ministers meeting face to face. And it's not just about optics. This could usher in a major regional realignment, and we're already seeing some of that take shape.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, what does that look like in places like, well, Syria or Yemen? And I'll mention that in both of those places, there are civil wars. And Iran and Saudi Arabia are using their money to back opposite sides in those civil wars.

BATRAWY: Exactly. So those years of wars have torn these countries apart. They've impacted the region. And what we're seeing, though, is that this deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran could help bring an end to the political stalemate in both of those countries. We're already seeing Arab states like Saudi Arabia restore ties with Syria's government that is backed by Iran. And in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been bombing Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, there's a push for permanent end to that conflict that's killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.

But this also impacts other countries like Iraq and Lebanon, where powerful Iranian-backed militias have influence and where Saudi has backed opposite factions there. But keep in mind that just a few years ago, the Saudis had blamed Iran for a missile and drone strike on their oil facility that knocked out production. So the fact that we're seeing these two countries now sitting face to face in China is a sign that they want to pivot.

And that's because Saudi Arabia wants to get out of the Yemen war and wants to really focus its priority now on big, major developments that the crown prince is launching to create jobs within the kingdom. Iran is isolated diplomatically. They're under U.S. sanctions. There were protests across cities in recent months. And so what this provides for them is an opportunity to kind of end that isolation and to open up new trade and investment with the region's biggest economy, which is Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: What obstacles do they face?

BATRAWY: There are definitely obstacles here because the core issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran haven't really changed. Saudi Arabia is extremely concerned about Iran's nuclear program. They're concerned about the reach of Iran's paramilitary force and their proxy militias. They're concerned about ballistic missiles and drones that are now being used by Russia and Ukraine.

But, look, this deal was brought together by China, a major oil client for both Saudi Arabia and Iran. And China's been vying for more influence in the Middle East, and this deal, as a broker, threatens the U.S. dominance in this part of the world. And Gulf nations don't trust the U.S. will defend it against Iran. So the strain in that relationship really gave China an opening. But it's still an open question whether Beijing has enough clout to guarantee that this deal will be seen through on the ground.

INSKEEP: I guess we'll keep listening for your reporting then. NPR's Aya Batrawy, thanks so much.

BATRAWY: Thank you.

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