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Saudi-Iran rift risks imploding volatile region: analysts

The ongoing standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both regional powers, is exacerbating an already deep sectarian division and risking imploding the region coping with a plethora of crises, analysts say.

Bahrain and Sudan have joined Saudi Arabia in cutting off their ties with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, also Saudi's Sunni allies, either downgraded its relationship with or recalled their ambassadors to Tehran, in a rapid development of events following Saudi's execution on Saturday of 47 people including a top Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.

"All happened within days," noted Bekir Gunay, director of the Institute of Eurasia with Istanbul University. "Imagine what could happen in a month unless intervened."

Riyadh described al-Nimr as a terrorist, while the cleric was perceived as a prominent figure in Shiite-dominated Iran and by Shiites in neighboring countries.

Iran responded by comparing Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State extremist group that carries out executions by beheading, and the police failed to prevent protesters from ransacking and setting fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

With countries starting to take sides in the standoff, Gunay stated that "The pin has been pulled," warning that a vast expanse of areas in the region could become the zones "ready to explode."

"One of the most dangerous scenarios that we can draw out of the latest tension would be a widespread sectarian war," he told Xinhua.

The analysts said that with a nuclear deal reached with world powers and sanctions to be lifted, Iran is emerging as a stronger regional power, a development that makes Saudi Arabia rather uncomfortable.

In Gunay's view, Tehran has already played a leadership role and become quite successful in both Syria and Iraq while blocking Turkey's moves there.

"Now, Iran tries to expand its domain," he said.

The Riyadh-Tehran row came at no worse time as both are seen as essential in the ongoing battle against the Islamic State and in helping lead Syria and Yemen out of devastating wars.

Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane on Nov. 24 and redeployment of mechanized troops to northern Iraq in early December have already chilled relations with two neighbors, putting the whole region on edge for weeks.

Still, Ankara can play its role in helping defuse the standoff between Riyadh and Tehran, the analysts said.

According to Gunay, as a country with a large Sunni population, Turkey should definitely stay neutral and play an arbitrary role.

"As Turkey has an open dialogue channel with both countries, it can easily play an active role in easing the tension and gain its reputation which has been damaged during the Syria crisis," said Erhan Kelesoglu, another analyst from Istanbul University's Department of International Relations.

"Otherwise Ankara would ignite the fire of a sectarian war," he warned.

[Source: Xinhua, Istanbul, 07Jan16]

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