In Brief

John Kerry urges Saudis and Iran to stay calm

Secretary of State in telephone diplomacy blitz as standoff continues

US Secretary of State John Kerry has made a series of calls to leaders in Iran and Saudi Arabia to try to resolve their diplomatic tensions.

The state department said that, since Sunday, Kerry had spoken at least twice to Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, as well as Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir, and Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the BBC reports.

"One of the key things on his mind is de-escalate the tensions, restore some sense of calm, encourage dialogue and engagement between these countries, but also to make the point there are other pressing issues in the region," said state department spokesman John Kirby.

"He will continue to stay in close communication today on this issue," continued Kirby, adding that Kerry will be "talking to other leaders in the region as well".

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday after protesters ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The protests were sparked by Saudi Arabia's execution of a senior Shia Muslim cleric.

Kuwait has recalled its ambassador from Tehran, describing the attack on the Saudi embassy there as a "flagrant breach of international norms".

Earlier, Bahrain and Sudan, both allies of the Saudis, had broken off diplomatic relations with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates has also downgraded its diplomatic presence in Tehran.

Meanwhile, a former leading aide of Kerry says that the execution is the culmination of a series of events that have stoked tension between the US and the Saudis, the Irish Times reports.

"We haven't been on the same page with the Saudis for a long time," said Martin S Indyk, the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution.

UN condemns attack on Saudi embassy in Tehran

05 January

The United Nations has condemned last weekend's attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran that has led to the country breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran.

However, points out the BBC, the UN's statement, issued in response to a letter of protest from the Saudis, does not mention Saturday's execution of cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr - an omission that will do little to calm the mood in Tehran.

The embassy was stormed and set on fire in protests over the execution by the Sunni country of the Shia cleric on terrorism-related charges. Iran is largely Shia and Nimr had become a symbolic leader for Shias internationally. 

Reporting on the attack, The New York Times warned of an "escalating rivalry between the Sunni monarchy" of Saudi Arabia and "Shiite Iran". The two nations are the rival dominant powers in the wider region. 

Nimr was one of 47 people executed on terror-related charges and the Times said grouping the cleric - an "outspoken critic of the [Saudi] monarchy" - with hardened jihadists could have repercussions "across the region".

Now the UN Security Council has called on the Iranian authorities to "protect diplomatic and consular property and personnel, and to respect fully their international obligations in this regard" - without mentioning Nimr.

On Saturday, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply dismayed" at Nimr's death and the other executions. Reuters reported that he voiced "serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process".

Saudi Arabia criticised his comments, describing them as "misinformed", so the Security Council's latest intervention may be an attempt to redress the balance.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard sees the execution of Nimr as a "dangerous escalation in the Kingdom's struggle with Iran for regional hegemony".

Increased discord could also have serious repercussions for oil prices, he adds. While Saudi Arabia's official religion is Sunni Islam, the province where most of its oil is produced has a Shia majority - and 15 per cent of the Saudi population are Shia.

An attack on Saudi Arabia would be a "dangerous gambit" for Iran, continues Evans-Pritchard, but it "cannot be ruled out".

Saudi Arabia cuts ties with Iran

04 January

The Middle East is at risk of an all-out sectarian war as condemnation of Saudi Arabia's execution of a Shia cleric intensifies and the kingdom responds by cutting all diplomatic ties with Iran.

Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who, along with 47 others, was executed on Saturday by Saudi authorities for "terrorism related offences", was a vocal critic of the Saudi royal family and had become a figurehead in the anti-government protests that erupted in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"Mass demonstrations erupted across the Middle East and Asia yesterday," says The Times, "triggering fears of a new sectarian conflict in the volatile region."

On Sunday, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that Saudi Arabia will face "divine revenge" for the execution, describing al-Nimr as a "martyr" who acted peacefully. Since his imprisonment in 2012, a high-profile campaign for his release has been backed by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and Amnesty International.

Last night, Saudi Arabia responded by giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the country.

The former Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, echoed an angry reaction in the Iranian press by suggesting the execution of al-Nimr "could topple the Saudi regime".

Iran – Saudi Arabia's main regional rival – led Shia condemnation of the execution as demonstrations against the Gulf kingdom took place in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen over the weekend.

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran last night, after protesters had stormed and set fire to the building on Saturday. In a symbolic move, Iranian authorities renamed the street on which the embassy sits after al-Nimr.

On Saturday, reports emerged of clashes in Bahrain between demonstrators carrying pictures of the cleric and armed police.

The Independent says hundreds of armoured vehicles were sent to the Saudi city of Qatif over the weekend to quash Shia resistance groups who had called for people to join protests against the execution. Saudi security forces are also said to be on high alert in other Shia-populated areas.

Britain has issued "its mildest possible condemnation of its close ally", the Daily Telegraph reports. "On Sunday night the junior foreign office minister with responsibility for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, expressed 'disappointment' with the executions, though he did not mention Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia cleric, by name."

The US has said the execution of the cleric "risks worsening sectarian tensions" in the region.

Writing in The Independent, Robert Fisk called on David Cameron and West to "stop their grovelling to oil-rich autocratic Gulf monarchs" after executions that were "worthy of Isis" and "clearly intended to infuriate the Iranians and the entire Shia world". 

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