Saudi allies scale down ties to Iran

2016-01-04 22:20
Iranian protesters chant slogans in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. (File, AP)

Iranian protesters chant slogans in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. (File, AP)

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Tehran - Allies of Saudi Arabia followed the kingdom's lead and on Monday began scaling down their diplomatic ties to Iran in the wake of the ransacking of Saudi diplomatic missions in the Islamic Republic...violence that was sparked by the Saudis' execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

The tiny island kingdom of Bahrain announced it would sever its ties completely from Iran, as Saudi Arabia did late on Sunday.

Within hours, the United Arab Emirates announced it would downgrade its own diplomatic ties to Tehran, bringing them down to the level of the charge d'affaires and would from now on focus entirely on the business relationships between the two countries.

Advocating violence

The Saudi decision to halt diplomatic relations came after the mass execution on Saturday of Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others - the largest carried out by Saudi Arabia in three and a half decades - laid bare the sectarian divisions gripping the region. Shi'ite protesters took to the streets from Bahrain to Pakistan while Arab allies of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia quickly lined up behind the kingdom.

Al-Nimr was a central figure in the Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority until his arrest in 2012. He was convicted of terrorism charges but denied advocating violence.

Bahrain enjoys particularly close relations with Saudi Arabia, which like Bahrain's leadership, is suspicious of alleged Iranian efforts to destabilise the island nation, which has a tiny Shi'ite-majority but is Sunni-ruled. Riyadh, along with the UAE, sent tanks and troops to Bahrain in 2011 to quell widespread anti-government protests spearheaded by Bahrain's Shi'ite majority.

Bahraini officials have blamed Iran for training militants and attempting to smuggle arms into the country, which hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet.

Trading history

Bahrain in October ordered the acting Iranian charge d'affaires to leave within 72 hours and recalled its own ambassador from Tehran after alleging Iran sponsored "subversion" and "terrorism" and funneled arms to militants.

The UAE, a country of seven emirates, has a long trading history with Iran and is home to many ethnic Iranians.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced the cut in Riyadh-Tehran relations late on Sunday and gave Iranian diplomatic personnel 48 hours to leave his country. All Saudi diplomatic personnel in Iran have been called home.

The move could affect the annual hajj pilgrimage. Lawmaker Mohammad Ali Esfanani, the spokesperson for the Judicial and Legal Committee of the Iranian parliament, said security issues and the fact that Iranian pilgrims wouldn't have consular protection inside the kingdom made halting the pilgrimage likely, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have yet to make any formal announcement about how the diplomatic spat would affect the hajj, a pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life. The hajj this year will likely begin in early September, though Muslims travel to the holy sites all year long as well.

Escalating conflict

"When a country has cut diplomatic relations with us, it means it is hostile with us," Esfanani said. "It appears that protection (of pilgrims) and security issues will prevent hajj from taking place."

When Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran from 1988 to 1991, Iran stopped its pilgrims from attending the hajj. Also, with Saudi diplomatic missions closed in Iran, it will make it difficult for Iranians to get visas for the hajj.

World powers have sought to calm the tensions, with a Russian state news agency on Monday quoting an unnamed senior diplomat as saying Moscow is ready to act as a mediator in the escalating conflict.

In Washington, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said the Obama administration believed "diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remained essential in working through differences.

"We will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions," Kirby said.

Read more on:    saudi arabia  |  iran

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