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Timeline: Iran and Saudi Arabia, from rivalry to rapprochement

Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to mend ties and reopen diplomatic missions after a years-long rift that has fueled tensions in the Gulf and deepened conflicts from Yemen to Syria.

The deal was reached on Friday during talks in Beijing between the top security officials of the two rival Middle East powers.

The two leading Shia and Sunni Muslim powers in the Middle East have been at odds for years and have supported opposing sides in proxy wars from Yemen to Syria.

Here’s a look at some recent events from their hostile history:

2011 – Arab Spring

The Arab Spring saw protest movements against the status quo throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabia accused Iran of inciting protests in Bahrain against the royal family and sent more than 1,000 soldiers to quell the demonstrations. Iran denied the accusation.

2011 – Syrian war

After the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011, the rivals faced each other again. Shiite-ruled Iran supported President Bashar al-Assad and provided him with military forces and money to fight the Sunni rebels. Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supported the rebel groups, but later joined a US-led coalition formed as of 2014 to fight ISIL (ISIS).

2015 – War in Yemen

When Yemen’s civil war began in 2015, Saudi Arabia supported its internationally recognized government and targeted the strongholds of the Houthi rebels. The Houthis join Iran.

2015 – Stampede in Mecca

A stampede in Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in 2015 further heightened tensions. Iran accused the Saudi government of mismanaging the most important event in the Islamic calendar. About 2,000 pilgrims perished in the rush, more than 400 of them Iranians.

2016 – Saudi Arabia cuts ties

Four months after the Mecca stampede, Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr, a critic of the Saudi government. Protesters in Tehran stormed the Saudi embassy and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of “divine vengeance” for Nimr’s execution. Riyadh then cut ties with Tehran.

2016 – Iran suspends Hajj participation

That same year, Iran suspended participation in the Hajj and Saudi Arabia launched a Persian-language television channel covering the pilgrimage.

Riyadh said the 24-hour satellite channel would cover Hajj rituals and prayers from the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Khamenei denounced Saudi Arabia over how it organizes the Hajj and suggested that Muslim countries think about ending Riyadh’s control over the pilgrimage.

2017 – Blockade of Qatar

Another regional rift occurred in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia and its allies in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar. They said Qatar was too close to Iran and supported “terrorism”, allegations Doha denied. Those tires were restored in January 2021.

2017 – Missile intercepted over Riyadh

In November 2017, Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile over Riyadh International Airport. It claimed the missile was supplied by Iran and launched from Houthi rebel-held territory in Yemen. In comments from the state-run Saudi Press Agency, the crown prince told then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that Iran’s actions “could be regarded as an act of war against the kingdom”.

2017 – Lebanese Prime Minister resigns

That same month, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri unexpectedly and bizarrely resigned from Riyadh, citing Iran’s “hold” on its country through Hezbollah. Him later withdrawn his resignation. The move plunged Lebanon into a political crisis seen as part of a Saudi effort to counter Iran’s influence in the country.

2018 – The US pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal

In May 2018, President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, a move praised by both Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned in a US television interview that if Tehran gets a nuclear weapon, “we will follow suit as soon as possible”.

The prince also referred to Iran’s supreme leader as “the new Hitler”.

2019 – Attacks on Saudi targets

A year later, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for a series of attacks on targets in the kingdom, including one that hit the heart of the country’s oil industry, temporarily halving the kingdom’s crude oil production. Iran denied involvement. The Yemeni rebel group Houthi has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

2020 – Qassem Soleimani killed

When Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad, official Saudi media celebrated the attack.

2021 – Iran and Saudi Arabia hold talks

In April 2021, Iran and Saudi Arabia held their first direct talks since cutting official ties. Baghdad was the host.

2022 – More conversations

Four rounds of talks were held between April and September last year, mostly brokered by Iraq and Oman.

After Iran and Saudi Arabia held a fifth round of talks, a top adviser to Khamenei called for the reopening of the Saudi and Iranian embassies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia for talks with Mohammed bin Salman.

2023 – Agreement to restore the tires

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is visiting China to meet Xi in February. The following month, Riyadh and Tehran announce that they have decided to restore ties.