Xi mediation offer spurred Iran deal talks: Saudi official
Chinese leader Xi Jinping approached Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler last year about Beijing serving as a "bridge" between the kingdom and Iran, jump-starting talks that yielded last week's surprise rapprochement, a Saudi official said Wednesday.
The initial conversation between Xi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took place during bilateral talks at a summit in Riyadh in December, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe how the deal -- whose ripple effects could spread across the Middle East -- took shape.
"The Chinese president expressed his desire for China to be a bridge between Saudi Arabia and Iran. His Royal Highness the Crown Prince welcomed this," the official said, later adding that Riyadh sees Beijing as being in a "unique" position to wield unmatched "leverage" in the Gulf.
"For Iran in particular, China is either No 1 or No 2 in terms of its international partners. And so the leverage is important in that regard, and you cannot have an alternative that is equal in importance," the official said.
Several other meetings also laid the groundwork for last week's talks in Beijing, according to the official.
They included a brief exchange between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers during a regional summit in Jordan in late December, talks between the Saudi foreign minister and Iran's deputy president during the inauguration of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in January, and a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing in February.
- Two superpowers -
China's role makes it more likely the terms of the deal will hold, the official said.
"It is a major stakeholder in the security and stability of the Gulf," the official said.
The agreement identifies a two-month window to formally resume diplomatic ties severed seven years ago.
It also includes vows for each side to respect the other's sovereignty and not interfere in the other's "internal affairs".
China's involvement raised eyebrows given Saudi Arabia's historically close partnership with the United States, though that relationship has been strained by issues including human rights and oil production cuts approved last year by the OPEC+ cartel.
"The US and China are both very important partners... We certainly hope not to be... party to any competition or dispute between the two superpowers," the official said Wednesday.
US officials were briefed before the Saudi delegation travelled to Beijing and before the deal was announced, the official said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday offered guarded praise to China for brokering the deal, saying it could benefit the region.
"From our perspective, anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflict and deter in any way dangerous and destabilising actions by Iran is a good thing," Blinken told reporters on a visit to Ethiopia.
- 'Stop supplying weapons' -
The talks in Beijing involved "five very extensive" sessions on thorny issues including the war in Yemen.
Iran-backed Huthi rebels seized control of Yemen's capital in 2014, prompting a Saudi-led intervention the following year.
The Saudi official said the talks produced "concrete commitments" on Yemen, but he would not disclose them.
"Iran is the main supplier of weapons, training and ideological programmes and propaganda expertise to the Huthis and we are the main victim of these missiles and drones and other stuff," the official said.
"So Iran can do a lot and should do a lot," he continued, adding that Iran should stop "supplying the Huthis with weapons".
Riyadh is in "back channel" talks with the Huthis to revive a truce that expired in October and push towards a political settlement involving all Yemeni factions, the official said.
"We also share a long border with Yemen, and certainly we will not tolerate any threat to our security from any place," he said.
The Beijing talks also saw the renewal of a commitment by both sides not to attack each other in the media, the official said.
But the official said Saudi Arabia does not have control over Iran International, a Persian-language channel that Tehran considers a "terrorist organisation".
Tehran has accused Saudi Arabia of financing the channel, which moved to Washington from London in February.
"Regarding Iran International, we continue to assert that it is not a Saudi media outlet and has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. It is a private investment," the Saudi official said.
The next step in implementing the rapprochement deal is a meeting between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers, but no date has been set, the official said.