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3 Sunni-Led States Join Saudi Arabia's Diplomatic Feud Against Iran

Three Sunni-led countries joined Saudi Arabia on Monday in severing or downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran, worsening a geopolitical conflict with sectarian dimensions in one of the world's most volatile regions.

The diplomatic protests from the three countries — Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates — came as Iran accused Saudi Arabia of using an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran two days earlier as a pretext for diverting attention from its problems.

Iranian protesters ransacked and set fire to the embassy on Saturday, along with the Saudi Consulate in Iran's second-largest city, Mashhad, after the Saudis executed a Shiite cleric who had criticized the Sunni kingdom's treatment of its Shiite minority. The Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was among 47 people who were executed.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, spoke by phone on Monday with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, condemning both execution as well as the attack on the embassy. Mr. Ban — who has repeatedly urged the two countries to cooperate on regional conflicts, especially on Syria — called the break in Saudi-Iranian relations "deeply worrying."

The cutting of ties comes just weeks after a groundbreaking series of talks that brought rival powers to the table to discuss a road map for peace in Syria. In New York in December, the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers sat directly across from each other for several hours at a high-level meeting led by the United States and Russia.

Direct talks among the warring parties in Syria, overseen by a United Nations mediator, Staffan de Mistura, are scheduled to start on Jan. 25 in Geneva. There is still no clarity on who would represent either the Syrian government or the various opposition groups fighting it.

Mr. de Mistura said on Monday that he was en route to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and that he then planned to visit Tehran in an attempt to defuse the tensions, which could set back the diplomatic effort to reach a resolution to the five-year-old civil war in Syria.

"This Saudi-Iranian sudden and acute crisis is a very worrisome development, and we must at all costs avoid that it produces a chain of violent consequences in the region," Mr. de Mistura said in an email.

The announcements on Monday by the three allies of Saudi Arabia added to the fraught atmosphere in the region.

Relations between Shiite Iran and Bahrain, a Shiite-majority island nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy, were already poor, with Bahrain having accused Iran of meddling in its internal affairs by backing various Shiite opposition groups since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011.

In October, after accusing Iran of shipping weapons to the island, Bahrain recalled its ambassador in Tehran and expelled the Iranian chargé d'affaires in its capital, Manama.

In a statement on Monday, Bahrain said the attack on the embassy and consulate in Iran occurred "without the slightest regard for values, the law or morality" and "confirms a determination to spread devastation and destruction, and provoke unrest and strife in the region by providing protection and support for terrorists and extremists and the smuggling of weapons and explosives for use by its affiliated terrorist cells."

Sudan on Monday expelled the Iranian ambassador in Khartoum, its capital, to protest the attack on the embassy, the Iranian news agency Fars reported.

The United Arab Emirates, which had already formally protested the embassy attack, on Monday downgraded its ties by recalling its ambassador to Tehran and ordering a reduction in the number of Iranian diplomats stationed in the country.

"This exceptional step has been taken in the light of Iran's continuous interference in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states, which has reached unprecedented levels," the United Arab Emirates' Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

For its part, Iran, which has arrested dozens of protesters suspected of involvement in the assault on the embassy and consulate, said that Saudi Arabia was using the episode to distract attention from problems at home.

"Saudi Arabia, gripped by crises inside and outside its territories, follows the policy of increasing regional tensions," a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hossein Jaberi-Ansari, said at a weekly news briefing on Monday, in remarks that were broadcast live by the state-run news channel Irinn.

Another official, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, the deputy foreign minister, accused Saudi Arabia of making "strategic blunders," saying it had contributed to the rise of terrorism in the region and "conspired to bring oil prices down."

Mr. Abdollahian told the semiofficial news agency Fars that the execution of Sheikh Nimr was the latest such blunder.

The United Nations, the United States and the European Union have condemned the executions, which the Saudis carried out against people it said were guilty of terrorism-related charges.

Iran's vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said that cutting ties with Tehran was Saudi Arabia's "loss," the semiofficial news agency Tasnim reported.

"Iran is a great country in the region and should be treated with respect," Mr. Jahangiri was quoted as saying. "When Iran treats you with self-restraint, you must learn, and put experienced executives in charge."

"Saudis are advised to stop acting in a disruptive, hasty, illogical and emotional manner as well as works, because they are the ones who will face losses in cutting ties with Iran," Mr. Jahangiri added.

While condemning the move by Saudi Arabia, officials in Iran reiterated comments on Sunday from its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the attacks were not productive.

"We do not achieve anything by attacking embassies and setting them ablaze," a hard-line prayer leader, Ahmad Khatami, told the Iranian Student News Agency on Monday. "We condemn the crimes of al-Saud, but we don't consider attacking the Saudi Embassy or Consulate an appropriate act," he said, referring to the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia's ruling family.

Russia — a tactical ally of Iran, which, like Russia, supports the embattled government of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad — offered on Monday to mediate the escalating conflict.

"Moscow is seriously concerned about the additional worsening of the situation in the Middle East with the participation of the biggest regional states: Saudi Arabia and Iran," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website. "Russia traditionally maintains friendly relations with both. We urge Tehran and Riyadh, and other Persian Gulf states, to show restraint."

The statement added: "We are sure that the emerging difficulties in interstate relations can and must be overcome by dialogue via negotiations. Russia, from its side, will be ready to render the needed assistance to such efforts."

Germany, which through the European Union has an important voice in Middle East affairs, urged Iran and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate the tensions. A government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters in Berlin on Monday that "relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are of fundamental importance for solving the crises in Syria and Yemen, and for the stability of the entire region."

As the diplomatic wrangling worsened in the Middle East, there were reports of sporadic violence stemming from the execution of Sheikh Nimr.

The official Saudi Press Agency reported early on Monday that a man had been killed and a child wounded in the village of Awamiya, where the family of Sheikh Nimr is holding three days of mourning at a mosque. The authorities offered no details on whom they suspected in the attack.

Sheikh Nimr was an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia's Sunni monarchy but had denied ever calling for violence. His execution on Saturday prompted outrage among Shiites across the region.

The sheikh's brother, Mohammed al-Nimr, has told The Associated Press that Saudi officials informed his family that the cleric had been buried in an undisclosed cemetery, a development that could lead to further protests.

[Source: By Thomas Erdbrink and Somini Sengupta, The New York Times, Tehran, 04Jan16]

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