US caught between Saudi Arabia, Iran

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As the spiralling tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran threaten to unbalance its tightrope walk in the strife-torn West Asian region, the U.S has launched a massive diplomatic outreach to both countries, but would stop short of trying to “mediate.”

“We want to see these kinds of tensions solved bilaterally,” said John Kirby, State Department spokesperson.

Secretary of State John Kerry and several other officials are in touch with Iranian and Saudi functionaries to diffuse the situation, but Washington would avoid too close an involvement as it could complicate the matter, according to officials.

Saudi’s Sunni monarchy and Iran’s Shiite theocracy are bitter adversaries in the region, but are also part of a multilateral process led by the U.S and Russia to stabilise Syria.

The White House and State Department expressed hope that the tensions triggered by the Saudi execution of an Iranian-trained Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, and the arson attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran that followed over the weekend would not derail the Syria process that is set to kick off this month. “….we see no reason why the Syria peace process shouldn’t move forward as planned. Obviously, the last thing we’d want to see is for there to be an impact on that or any other significant regional issues by the tensions over the weekend,” Mr. Kirby said.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest urged Saudi Arabia and Iran not to let the tensions affect the process of ceasefire and Syrian political transition.

The Saudi action that precipitated a crisis in the region happened despite the U.S repeatedly cautioning them against the cleric’s execution. A U.S official said Washington had repeatedly taken up the issue with the Saudis, but they went ahead with the execution.

The current flare-up has its origin in the Saudi monarchy’s deep resentment against the U.S-led nuclear deal with Iran that has begun to come into effect with Iran shipping its specified nuclear material to Russia last week.

The Saudis accuse the U.S of giving legitimacy to Iran before roping them into the Syria process.

A U.S official said the Saudi reservations were misplaced as Iran continues to be in the U.S list of state sponsors of terrorism. “We still have a lot of sanctions against Iran,” the official said, adding that everybody would agree that Iran without nuclear weapons is better for every country in the region.

“The deal was not about giving legitimacy, but about cutting off their pathways to the bomb. And Saudis have been at the table on Syria, three times now. Everybody does not want everybody and we understand that….We are not getting any sustainable solution in Syria if it does not account for the influence Iran has in Syria, it is pragmatism,” the official said.

Recalling that it was not only the U.S but there was a multilateral agreement on a nuclear deal with Iran and on Syria. “Whether you like it or not, Iran has influence in the region. They have influence over Assad. No political solution is going to work without engaging Iran to some degree on this,” he said.

New sanctions against Iran

But convincing the Saudis may not be easy for the U.S that condemned the attack on the Saudi embassy more strongly than the cleric’s execution by Saudi. Mr. Kirby also said the U.S was considering new sanctions against Iran for violations of the U.N. Security Council resolutions with respect to their ballistic missile program. “There are sanctions under consideration. There are still some technical issues that need to be worked out,” Mr. Kirby said.

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