Turkey urges calm as Iran-Saudi crisis deepens
ANKARA / TEHRAN / RIYADH
Deputy Prime Mnister Numan Kurtulmuş speaks during a press conference. AA photoAnkara called for calm, while opposing the executions, as tensions between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors reached new heights on Jan. 4 as Saudi Arabia and its allies cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with Tehran in a row over the execution of a Shiite cleric.
“Saudi Arabia and Iran are two major countries of the Muslim world, and we have ties with both of them,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş, the government spokesperson, told reporters following a cabinet meeting on Jan. 4.
“Both countries should leave these tensions behind as soon as possible. The region cannot carry such tension,” he added.
Kurtulmuş said the execution of political death sentences will not help the regional peace.
“We are against all kinds of political death sentences,” he said.
"We need peace in the region. As country that is friends with both countries, we say that they should act in moderation. Enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran will harm both countries, will harm the region. The people of Iran and Saudi Arabia are our brothers, friends,” Kutulmuş added.
Kurtulmuş's remarks, Turkey's first statement on the subject, came as tensions between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors reached new heights as Saudi Arabia and its allies cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with Tehran in a row over the execution of a Shiite cleric.
Angry exchanges following Saudi Arabia’s execution on Jan. 2 of prominent Shiite cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr erupted into a full-blown diplomatic crisis as Riyadh and then Bahrain and Sudan severed their relations with Tehran, the main Shiite power.
The United States and other Western nations urged calm, amid fears the dispute could derail efforts to resolve conflicts across the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen.
It has also raised concerns of an increase in sectarian violence, including in Iraq where two Sunni mosques were blown up overnight.
Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran late on Jan. 3, giving diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, after protesters set fire to its embassy in Tehran and a consulate in second city Mashhad.
Bahrain and Sudan followed suit on Jan. 4, as Moscow offered to act as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran.
The United Arab Emirates also downgraded its ties, recalling its envoy from Tehran and reducing the number of its diplomats in the country.
Sunni Arab nations accused Tehran of repeatedly meddling in their affairs, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir saying “Iran’s history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues.”
Bahrain accused Iran of “increasing flagrant and dangerous meddling” in Gulf and Arab states, while the UAE said Iranian interference had reached “unprecedented levels.”
Some 80 Saudis, including diplomats and their families, had already left Iran and arrived in Dubai on Jan. 4, diplomatic sources said.
Iranian officials denounced the Saudi move as a tactic that would inflame regional tensions.
“Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and (it) attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them to the outside,” foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposing ends of a range of crucial issues in the Middle East, including the war in Syria, where Tehran backs President Bashar al-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 U.S., sparking major concern in Riyadh, a longtime U.S. ally.
Washington raised concern over the growing crisis, with State Department spokesman John Kirby calling for “leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions.”
In Moscow, a foreign ministry source told AFP Russia “is ready to serve as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran” in the dispute.
The Cairo-based Arab League said it would hold an emergency meeting at Riyadh’s request on Jan. 10 to discuss the attacks on Saudi diplomatic premises in Iran.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the tensions were “hugely concerning,” Germany expressed its “dismay” and called for the restoration of diplomatic ties, and France urged a “de-escalation of tensions.”
Oil prices rose on fears of Middle East instability, with U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate climbing 30 cents to $37.34 a barrel.
Gulf stocks tumbled, with six of the region’s seven exchanges down and the Saudi Tadaul All-Shares Index falling by 2.36 percent.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, on Jan. 3 criticized those who attacked the diplomatic buildings, calling them radicals, and 50 suspects were arrested.
But the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Riyadh its rulers would face “quick consequences” for executing Nimr.
Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered for a new rally in Tehran on Jan. 4, chanting anti-Saudi slogans and burning U.S. and Israeli flags.
As tensions rose, Saudi football clubs in the Asian Champions League appealed for fixtures in Iran in February to be played on neutral ground.
In Shiite-majority Iraq, top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called Nimr’s execution “an unjust act of aggression,” and on Jan. 4 blasts rocked two Sunni mosques in the center of the country, wounding at least three people.
A man living at one of the mosques in the town of Hilla was shot dead by unidentified gunmen and a Sunni muezzin, who recites the Muslim call to prayer, was shot dead near his home in the city of Iskandariyah, security sources said.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said security forces were tracking down the perpetrators “who targeted mosques to sow sedition and undermine national unity.”
The 56-year-old Nimr was a force behind 2011 anti-government protests in eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shiites have long complained of marginalization.
He was among 47 men executed on Jan. 2, including other Shiite activists and Sunni militants the Saudi interior ministry said were involved in al-Qaeda attacks that killed dozens in 2003 and 2004.
Nimr’s brother Mohammed on Jan. 4 condemned retaliatory attacks on the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in Iran.
“We appreciate your love towards the martyr #Sheikh_AlNimr who lives in our hearts but we refuse attacks on #Saudi ambassies in #Iran or others,” Mohammed al-Nimr wrote in English on Twitter.
The family also called for Nimr’s body to be handed over for burial, after authorities said it had already been buried.
Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia since King Salman ascended the throne a year ago with 153 people put to death in 2015, nearly twice as many as in 2014, for crimes ranging from murder to drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy.