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Arab Diplomats Rally Behind Saudi Arabia

by AFP
Khaled Desouki—AFP

Khaled Desouki—AFP

Arab League denounces Iran as row between rival nations continues.

Top Arab diplomats rallied behind Saudi Arabia on Sunday in a dispute with Iran that has threatened to derail efforts to resolve Middle East conflicts including the war in Syria.

Iran meanwhile said Saudi Arabia was seeking to undermine talks to end the Syrian conflict, an accusation Riyadh fiercely rejected. The U.N. envoy to Syria said he believed the dispute—which has seen tensions between the Sunni and Shia regional rivals reach new heights—would not hurt efforts to bring Syria’s warring parties together later this month.

After meeting in Cairo for emergency talks requested by Riyadh, Arab League foreign ministers issued a joint statement denouncing the “hostile acts and provocations of Iran” in the dispute. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir also rejected Tehran’s claims it was using the dispute to back away from international efforts to finally end Syria’s nearly five-year civil war.

Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing sides in the conflict, with Riyadh supporting rebel groups and Tehran behind President Bashar al-Assad. Both countries had joined international talks launched in Vienna last year that backed an 18-month plan to end the conflict and foresee further talks on Jan. 25.

“We have previously stated our support for the Syrian opposition and for efforts to find a peaceful solution in Syria,” Jubeir said. “This is still the case, we believe in this and we fully support [the peace process] despite our differences with Iran,” he said.

Ahead of talks with U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura in Tehran on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had accused Riyadh of trying “to create tension intended to negatively affect the Syrian crisis.” But after the talks in Tehran, and with Saudi officials in the last week, de Mistura said both countries had vowed to continue to support peace efforts.

“The Saudi foreign minister assured me that there would be no impact from their point of view…. In Iran I got the same assurance,” he told reporters.

The diplomatic row erupted following Saudi Arabia’s execution on Jan. 2 of a prominent Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others on terrorism charges. The execution touched off anti-Saudi demonstrations in many Shia countries including in Iran where demonstrators sacked and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in second city Mashhad.

Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran the next day and a number of its Sunni Arab allies followed suit, including Bahrain and Sudan. Other Arab countries downgraded ties or recalled their envoys from Tehran. The dispute escalated, with Tehran on Thursday saying Saudi warplanes had bombed its embassy in Yemen, wounding staff, and vowing to protest to the U.N. Security Council. Riyadh, which is leading an Arab military intervention against Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen, denied the accusation, saying no operations were carried out near the mission.

On Sunday the Arab League said Iran’s reaction to the executions was “flagrant interference” in Saudi affairs.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have also cut air links with Iran, while Tehran has banned Saudi goods from import.

Iran, which denounced the attacks on the embassies and vowed to punish the perpetrators, has accused Saudi Arabia of using the crisis to distract attention from the execution and as a cover for anti-Iranian diplomatic efforts.

Iran’s signing of a deal with world powers over its nuclear program last year sparked deep concern in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, that its longtime rival was emerging from international isolation.

As well as the Syria peace talks, the crisis also threatens a fragile U.N.-backed initiative to end the war in Yemen, where the Houthi rebels have seized control of large parts of the country including the capital Sanaa.

On Saturday officials said another round of peace talks due to take place in Geneva on Jan. 14 had been delayed by at least a week after the Houthis refused to take part. U.N. envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed was in Sanaa on Sunday in an attempt to convince the rebels to attend.

“We are in Sanaa to exert more efforts with all parties concerned to [convince them to] hold a new round of talks,” the rebel-controlled sabanews.net website quoted the envoy as saying upon his arrival in the capital.

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