RIYADH/DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – The diplomatic crisis surrounding Saudi Arabia and Iran widened on Tuesday as Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Tehran and Bahrain severed air links in the face of growing international concern.
Joining Riyadh and its Sunni Arab allies in taking diplomatic action, Kuwait said it was withdrawing its envoy over a weekend attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
Kuwait’s move came after the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the attack by protesters angry over Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni power, and Shiite-dominated Iran have erupted this week into a full-blown diplomatic crisis, sparking widespread worries of regional instability.
Iran lashed out again at Saudi Arabia for the execution on Tuesday, with President Hassan Rouhani accusing Riyadh of seeking to “cover its crime” by severing ties.
“One does not respond to criticism by cutting off heads,” Rouhani said, referring to the usual Saudi practice of carrying out executions with beheading by the sword.
Washington and other Western powers have called for calm amid fears the dispute could raise sectarian tensions across the Middle East and derail efforts to resolve conflicts from Syria to Yemen.
The Security Council joined those calls late on Monday, issuing a statement urging all sides to “take steps to reduce tensions in the region”.
The statement by the 15-member council condemned “in the strongest terms” the attacks that saw protesters firebomb the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Iran’s second-biggest city Mashhad.
But the council made no mention of the event that set off the crisis — Saudi Arabia’s execution on Saturday of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a cleric and activist whose death sparked widespread Shiite protests.
Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in protest at the attacks on Sunday and has severed air links with Iran.
Some of its allies among Sunni Arab states followed suit, with Bahrain and Sudan breaking off ties and the United Arab Emirates downgrading relations on Monday.
Bahrain — base of the U.S. 5th Fleet — cut air links with the Islamic republic on Tuesday.
Kuwait said Tuesday the embassy attacks “represent a flagrant breach of international agreements and norms and a grave violation of Iran’s international commitments.
Rouhani has condemned the attacks and Tehran’s mission to the U.N. vowed in a letter to the Security Council to “take necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents in the future.
Iranian officials have brushed aside the dispute, with government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht saying Tuesday it “will have no impact on Iran’s national development.
“It is Saudi Arabia that will suffer,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called his Iranian and Saudi counterparts on Monday to urge calm as European leaders raised concerns and Moscow offered to mediate.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also spoke by phone with the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers to urge them to “avoid any actions that could further exacerbate the situation,” his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said.
“A breakdown of relations between Riyadh and Tehran could have very serious consequences for the region,” Dujarric said.
The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, rushed to Riyadh in a bid to defuse tensions. He is also expected in Iran later this week and in Damascus on Saturday, U.N. sources said.
The official Saudi SPA news agency, without referring to the Iran crisis, said Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reaffirmed to the envoy Tuesday Riyadh’s view that “(President) Bashar al-Assad doesn’t have any role in Syria’s future”.
The U.N. quoted De Mistura as saying Riyadh was determined that regional tensions “will not have any negative impact … on the continuation of the political process that the U.N., together with the International Syria Support Group, intend to start in Geneva soon”.
The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Sunni Arab states said it would meet in Riyadh Saturday for talks on the embassy attacks, a day before an Arab League emergency meeting.
Regional powerhouse Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu urged all involved to “show common sense and take steps aimed at easing the tensions in the region.
He said Ankara was “ready to make any effort” to help.
The foreign minister of Shiite-majority Iraq was due in Tehran Wednesday, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported, “in the framework of improving Iran-Iraq bilateral relations”.
Media reports said his counterpart from Oman, which has often played the role of mediator in the region, was also expected in the Iranian capital at the same time.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposing ends of a range of crucial issues, including the war in Syria — where Tehran backs Assad’s regime and Riyadh supports rebel forces — and Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite insurgents.
The spike in tensions comes after Iran last year secured a historic nuclear deal with world powers led by the United States, sparking major concern in longtime U.S. ally Riyadh.
Nimr, one of 47 men executed on Saturday, was a driving force behind 2011 anti-government protests in eastern Saudi Arabia.
He was arrested in 2012 after calling for two Saudi governorates to be separated from the kingdom. At the time Riyadh labeled him an “instigator of sedition.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was quick to condemn the execution of Saudi cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, stating: “Without a doubt, the hated Saudi regime will pay a price for this shameful act.”
For an organization deeply involved in wars in Syria and Iraq this looks no idle threat, at least in the eyes of Sunni Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia who say Shiite rival Tehran is bent on undermining their security.
The Guard’s furious comment is not a call for direct conflict with Riyadh, something neither country wants. But it is a reminder to Gulf Arabs that the IRGC, with connections in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region, has many ways to wage the long cold war between Tehran and its Arab foes.
Tehran denies interfering in Arab lands. But the Quds Force, the arm of the Guards that operates abroad, has contributed fighters, weapons and military supplies to back Iran’s interests and policies across the region.
That prospect is worrying for a region where conflicts or political crises from Lebanon and Syria to Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain involve proxies of both powers who are at daggers drawn.
A day after the IRGC issued its statement, which described Saudi rulers as “terrorist fostering, hated and anti-Islam,” Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran, escalating a contest for power that underpins the region’s turmoil.
There is no firm indication that Iran’s factionalized leadership has agreed how far it should go to avenge the death of Nimr — who was one of 47 people executed by Saudi Arabia on Saturday — and what methods should be used. But whatever steps are authorized, the Guards are likely to be involved, although as orchestrators more than direct participants, experts say.
“The Guard will not respond directly,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
“They have their operatives, their people, their connections everywhere in the region who will answer what the Saudis did and actually escalate. Iran is in a very strong position to respond in the Saudi Arabian eastern province. And they can do a lot in Bahrain.”
Moderate voices on both sides do not have an interest in seeing the situation escalate into a full conflict, experts say.
And yet the rivals often compete indirectly through allies, which lends the contest an element of unpredictability: Some Iranian proxies may be encouraged by the tough rhetoric coming from Tehran to carry out attacks not sanctioned by the Guard.
“Both sides are loath to see tensions spiral out of control. They are more likely than not to prevent this cold conflict from deteriorating into a hot one, while stepping up their proxy wars across the region,” said Ali Vaez, the senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“But with tensions reaching new heights, now more than ever, they run the risk of unintended direct confrontation.”
The Quds Force has gained valuable military experience in recent years and now plays a dominant role within the IRGC, experts say. In some cases, Guard fighters and their Shiite proxies have fought against Sunni groups directly supported by Saudi Arabia in Syria and Iraq.
The IRGC has also established intelligence networks among the Shiite populations in the Gulf states. It has the potential to undermine Saudi Arabia and its allies’ interests using sympathetic Shiites to stir political unrest or engage in violent attacks, experts say.
Saudi Arabia has a sizable Shiite community in the east of the country, while the majority of Bahrain’s citizens are Shiites who live under a Sunni monarchy. A failed uprising which began in Bahrain in 2011 was largely focused on gaining more democratic rights for the country’s Shiites.
In the Guards’ statement, they warned that the youth and Muslims of Saudi Arabia would take “tough revenge” that would lead to the fall of the Saudi government. The Iranians could also revive the resentment that drove the Bahrain uprising.
“I think the Iranians think they can actually have a victory in Bahrain which would be a red line for the Saudis,” said a Western diplomat in Beirut who asked not to be identified.
“A key part of the Iranian narrative is that Bahrain is a majority Shiite nation that is being oppressed and not allowed democracy.”
The bulk of Iran’s tough rhetoric has come from hard-line groups like the Guards, some of whom have also criticized the nuclear deal agreed with world powers last year aimed at lifting most sanctions against the country.
More diplomatic isolation is not good news for pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who, with the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pushed for the deal in order to expand Iran’s ties with the international community.
Rouhani managed to normalize ties with the West somewhat through the deal and started the new year with an optimistic tweet hoping that in 2016 countries can “look for reasons to make peace, not excuses for hostility.”
But now facing the biggest diplomatic crisis of his government, Rouhani might not be able to persuade the Guards to dial down their paramilitary activism in favor of diplomacy.
That could lead the Guards to push their allies within Saudi Arabia to carry out violent attacks.
“Should the IRGC desire to use terrorism on Saudi soil to retaliate against the House of Saud, the IRGC is likely to find it easier to find recruits among the Shia in Saudi Arabia,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an expert on the Revolutionary Guards.
It is unlikely the Guards would do much to hit Saudi interests in Syria or Iraq. But harsh anti-Saudi rhetoric from Iran may spur some of the militias trained and armed by Tehran to act on their own, experts say.
“Iran has created a Frankenstein with the Shiite militias in Iraq,” said the Western diplomat in Beirut.
“When you keep emphasizing this notion of Saudi Arabia and its proxies oppressing Shia — and you’ve got these angry militiamen — at some point they’re going to be out of Iran’s control. There’s always the risk of that kind of escalation.”
For their part, the Saudis could boost their financial and military support to Sunni militant groups in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to counter the Iranian threat, experts say.
Still, it would be difficult for the Saudis to prevail in a political and diplomatic showdown with Iran, experts say.
“The fact that the Saudis have decided to sever their diplomatic relations with Iran means that they are, in their own minds, ready for an all-out confrontation with Iran,” Khashan said. “There is nothing the Saudis can do to destabilize Iran, whereas the Iranians on the other hand have every means conceivable to destabilize Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, namely Bahrain.”