MIDEAST TIES UN­RAVEL

Su­dan, Bahrain to scale back re­la­tions with Tehran

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jon Gam­brell

An Ira­nian woman holds up a poster Mon­day in Tehran, Iran, of Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, a prom­i­nent op­po­si­tion Saudi Shi­ite cleric who was ex­e­cuted last week by Saudi Ara­bia. Al­lies of Saudi Ara­bia fol­lowed the king­dom’s lead and be­gan scal­ing back diplo­matic ties to Iran on Mon­day af­ter the ran­sack­ing of Saudi diplo­matic mis­sions in Tehran, violence sparked by the ex­e­cu­tion of al-Nimr.

dubai, united arab emi­rates» Al­lies of Saudi Ara­bia fol­lowed the king­dom’s lead Mon­day and scaled back diplo­matic ties to Iran af­ter the ran­sack­ing of Saudi diplo­matic mis­sions in the Is­lamic Repub­lic, violence sparked by the Saudi ex­e­cu­tion of a prom­i­nent Shi­ite cleric.

Su­dan and the tiny is­land king­dom of Bahrain said they would sever ties with Iran, as Saudi Ara­bia did late Sun­day. Within hours, the United Arab Emi­rates an­nounced it would down­grade ties to Iran to the level of the charge d’af­faires, while other na­tions is­sued state­ments crit­i­ciz­ing Iran.

The con­certed cam­paign by Sunni-ruled Saudi Ara­bia high­lights the ag­gres­sive stance King Sal­man and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, have adopted in con­fronting Iran, a long­time re­gional ri­val.

“What we have seen dur­ing the last 24 hours is un­prece­dented. … It shows you Saudi Ara­bia has had enough of Iran and wants to send a mes­sage,” said Ab­dulkhaleq Ab­dul­lah, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at Emi­rates Univer­sity. “This is the Saudis say­ing, ‘There is no limit to how far we will go.’ ”

The stand­off be­gan Satur­day, when Saudi Ara­bia ex­e­cuted Shi­ite cleric Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr and 46 oth­ers con­victed of ter­ror­ism charges — the largest mass ex­e­cu­tion car­ried out by the king­dom since 1980.

Al-Nimr was a cen­tral fig­ure in the Arab Spring-in­spired protests by Saudi Ara­bia’s Shi­ite mi­nor­ity, who long de­nied ad­vo­cat­ing violence. News of his ex­e­cu­tion has sparked Shi­ite protests from Bahrain to Pak­istan.

In Iran, pro­test­ers at­tacked the Saudi Em­bassy in Tehran and its con­sulate in Mash­had. By late Sun­day, Saudi For­eign Min­is­ter Adel al-Jubeir an­nounced the king­dom would sever its re­la­tions with Iran over the as­saults, giv­ing Ira­nian diplo­matic per­son­nel 48 hours to leave his coun­try.

On Mon­day, Saudi Ara­bia’s civil avi­a­tion author­ity sus­pended all flights to and from Iran, say­ing the move was based on the king­dom’s cut­ting of diplo­matic ties.

Iran ex­pressed “re­gret” over the at­tacks on the diplo­matic mis­sions in a let­ter to the United Na­tions on Mon­day and vowed to ar­rest those re­spon­si­ble. In the let­ter, ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press, Iran’s U.N. en­voy

Gho­la­mali Khoshroo says more than 40 pro­test­ers have been ar­rested and that au­thor­i­ties are search­ing for other sus­pects.

Saudi Ara­bia and Iran have long vied for in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East, with their ri­valry deep­en­ing af­ter the top­pling of Sad­dam Hus­sein in Iraq, which al­lowed Iran to as­sert dom­i­nance there, and the chaos of the Arab Spring, which gave rise to proxy wars in Syria and Ye­men.

An early bat­tle­ground was Bahrain, where the Shi­ite ma­jor­ity staged mass protests in 2011 de­mand­ing po­lit­i­cal re­forms from the Sunni monar­chy. Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates sent in troops to help quash the re­volt, view­ing it as an Ira­nian bid to ex­pand its in­flu­ence.

Bahraini of­fi­cials have since ac­cused Iran of train­ing mil­i­tants and at­tempt­ing to smug­gle arms into the coun­try, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. In Oc­to­ber, Bahrain or­dered the act­ing Ira­nian charge d’af­faires to leave within 72 hours and re­called its own am­bas­sador af­ter al­leg­ing Iran spon­sored “sub­ver­sion” and “ter­ror­ism” and fun­neled arms to mil­i­tants.

Su­dan, which has been look­ing to Saudi for aid since the se­ces­sion of oil-rich South Su­dan in 2011, on Mon­day an­nounced an “im­me­di­ate sev­er­ing of ties” over the diplo­matic mis­sion at­tacks. Su­dan once was closer to Iran but in re­cent years has tilted to­ward Saudi Ara­bia and has con­trib­uted forces to the Saudi-led coali­tion bat­tling Shi­ite rebels in Ye­men.

The UAE, a coun­try of seven emi­rates, has a long trad­ing history with Iran and is home to many eth­nic Ira­ni­ans. It said it would re­duce the num­ber of di­plo­mats in Iran and re­call its am­bas­sador “in the light of Iran’s con­tin­u­ous in­ter­fer­ence in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of Gulf and Arab states, which has reached un­prece­dented lev­els.”

Saudi Ara­bia pre­vi­ously sev­ered ties with Iran from 1988 to 1991 over hajj ri­ot­ing in 1987 and Iran’s at­tacks on ship­ping in the Per­sian Gulf. That diplo­matic freeze saw Iran halt pil­grims from at­tend­ing the hajj in Saudi Ara­bia, some­thing re­quired of all able Mus­lims once in their lives.

Ira­nian law­maker Mo­ham­mad Ali Es­fanani, spokesman of the Ju­di­cial and Le­gal Com­mit­tee, said halt­ing the pil­grim­age is likely, be­cause of se­cu­rity is­sues and the fact that Ira­nian pil­grims wouldn’t have con­sular pro­tec­tion in­side the king­dom, ac­cord­ing to the ISNA news agency.

World pow­ers have sought to calm the ten­sions, with Wash­ing­ton and the Euro­pean Union reach­ing out. On Mon­day, Ger­many called on both sides to mend ties, while Rus­sian state news agency RIA Novosti quoted an un­named se­nior diplo­mat as say­ing Moscow is ready to act as a me­di­a­tor.

The U.N. en­voy for Syria, Staffan de Mis­tura, was en route to Riyadh on Mon­day with plans to visit Tehran. Iran, a staunch sup­porter of em­bat­tled Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, and Saudi Ara­bia, a key backer of the op­po­si­tion, have par­tic­i­pated in three rounds of in­ter­na­tional talks aimed at end­ing the con­flict. De Mis­tura has set a Jan. 25 tar­get date for a fourth round of talks.

The White House on Mon­day urged Saudi Ara­bia and Iran to not let their dis­pute de­rail ef­forts to end the Syr­ian civil war.

“Hope­fully they will con­tinue to en­gage,” Earnest said. “It is so clearly in the in­ter­ests of both coun­tries to ad­vance a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the sit­u­a­tion in­side of Syria.”

Iraqi Shi­ites show sup­port Mon­day in Bagh­dad for Nimr alNimr, who was ex­e­cuted by Saudi Ara­bia. Ah­mad Al-Rubaye, AFP

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