Monday, January 4, 2016

"US scrambles to curb damage from Saudi-Iranian fallout"

From al-Monitor:
 With long-sought UN Syria peace talks set for later this month at stake as well as the wider fight against the Islamic State, Washington and its allies were scrambling Jan. 4 to try to stem the fallout from Saudi Arabia’s abrupt decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran following attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in the wake of the Saudis’ execution of a dissident Shiite cleric.

The State Department, responding to Riyadh’s Jan. 3 announcement that it was severing diplomatic relations with Iran and giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, urged maintaining diplomatic engagement and avoiding actions that could further inflame regional sectarian tensions.

“What we want to see is tensions caused by these executions reduced, diplomatic relations restored, so that the leadership in the region can focus on other pressing issues,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told journalists at the State Department on Jan. 4. “We have consistently urged everyone to deescalate tensions”

Secretary of State John Kerry worked the phones as he returned to Washington from a brief New Year’s vacation in Idaho, during which much of the painstaking diplomatic work he and allies had done the past five months to try to get both Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the Syria peace table looked at risk of being destroyed. Kerry spoke with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Jan. 3 and with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Jan. 4, diplomatic sources said. He also spoke with UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who recently announced renewed talks between the Syrian regime and opposition would be held in Geneva on Jan. 25.

De Mistura, who was traveling to Riyadh on Jan. 4 to meet with Syrian opposition representatives before heading to Iran later this week, expressed alarm that the newly emerged diplomatic crisis could set back his efforts.

The “sudden and acute crisis” in Saudi-Iranian relations “is a very worrisome development,” he told The New York Times in an email Jan. 4. “We must at all costs avoid that it produces a chain of violent consequences in the region.”

While condemning the attacks on diplomatic facilities, former senior US officials who worked on the Middle East expressed puzzlement and dismay at the Saudi decision to carry out the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, which was certain to stoke sectarian reactions across the region at such a sensitive moment.

It is “very unclear why the Saudis decided to do this now,” former Obama administration Middle East official Ilan Goldenberg told Al-Monitor by email Jan. 4. “A complete puzzle.”...MORE