Iraq offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran after tensions soared following the kingdom’s execution of a Shiite cleric and attacks on two Saudi diplomatic posts in the Islamic Republic.
The standoff has seen Saudi Arabia sever diplomatic ties with its longtime regional rival and could hinder efforts to resolve the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, where Riyadh and Tehran back opposite sides, as well as affect the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari proposed mediation during a news conference in Tehran, but also referred to the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr as a “crime.” Saudi Arabia and its allies say al-Nimr was found guilty of terrorism charges, and that condemnations of the execution amount to meddling in Riyadh’s internal affairs.
Iraq has undertaken a delicate balancing act amid the latest regional turmoil. The Shiite-led government in Baghdad relies on Iranian help to battle the extremist Islamic State group, but is also trying to repair ties to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which last week sent an ambassador to Baghdad for the first time in 25 years.
Speaking alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, al-Jaafari said Iraq’s place in the heart of the Middle East allows it to play a role in trying to “alleviate tensions.”
“This responsibility has been given to us and we have been active from the early moments to lessen tensions to prevent a disaster from happening that could affect the entire region,” he said.
Russia also has offered itself as a potential mediator, though it’s unclear whether Saudi or Iranian officials have responded to the proposal.
Zarif, meanwhile, blamed Saudi Arabia for exacerbating the situation.
“We have treated these actions with magnanimity and nobleness but unfortunately our neighbor, Saudi Arabia, did not respond to it properly,” he said. “The process of provoking tension must be stopped.”
On Wednesday, January 6, Oman broke its silence on the Mideast turmoil and called the Saudi diplomatic post attacks “unacceptable,” while leaving its ties to Iran untouched. The sultanate has been a long-time mediator between Iran and the rest of the world and helped jumpstart negotiations for the nuclear deal with global powers reached last year.
In eastern Saudi Arabia, where al-Nimr agitated for greater political rights for Shiites in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, three days of mourning over his death were to end Wednesday night. Mohammed al-Nimr, the sheikh’s brother, said people planned to hold a funeral Thursday for the cleric, though Saudi authorities already buried his corpses in an undisclosed cemetery.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a staunch critic of the Saudi government but always denied advocating violence.
Asked about the diplomatic post attacks, Mohammed al-Nimr said it was “not acceptable.”
“We still believe that violence is not the right approach,” he said. “About my brother, we were hoping to end it in a political way rather than in blood.”