Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran erupted into a full-blown diplomatic crisis as Riyadh and its Sunni Arab allies cut or reduced ties with Tehran, sparking global concern.
Following angry exchanges over Saudi Arabia’s execution Saturday of prominent Shiite cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Riyadh and then Bahrain and Sudan severed relations with Tehran, the main Shiite power.
European countries and regional power Turkey voiced concerns over the row, while US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Iranian and Saudi counterparts on Monday and Moscow offered to act as an intermediary.
The UN envoy for Syria headed to Riyadh and Tehran to defuse tensions, and a US official said Washington was “urging calm and de-escalation”.
The crisis has also raised fears of an increase in sectarian violence in the Middle East, including in Iraq where two Sunni mosques were blown up late Monday and two people killed.
Saudi Arabia insisted at the United Nations, however, that the row would not affect efforts to resolve conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
“From our side, it should have no effect because we will continue to work very hard to support the peace efforts in Syria and Yemen,” Abdallah al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN, told reporters.
He said Riyadh would attend upcoming talks on Syria, but took a swipe at Iran’s role in the nearly five-year war there, saying: “They have been taking provocative and negative positions... and I don’t think the break in relations is going to dissuade them from such behaviour.”
Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran late on Sunday, giving diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom after protesters— responding to Nimr’s execution—set fire to its embassy in Tehran and a consulate in second city Mashhad, an attack strongly condemned by the UN Security Council.
Bahrain and Sudan followed suit on Monday, and the United Arab Emirates also downgraded its ties, recalling its envoy from Tehran.
Sunni Arab nations accuse Tehran of repeatedly meddling in their affairs, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir saying “Iran’s history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues”.
Some 80 Saudis, including diplomats and their families, had already left Iran and arrived in Dubai on Monday, diplomatic sources said.
The Saudi civil aviation authority said all flights to and from Iran were also being suspended. Iranian officials denounced the Saudi moves as tactics that would inflame regional tensions.