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Iran-Saudi Rift Complicates U.S. Campaign Against ISIS

Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. (Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA via AP)
Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. (Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA via AP)

The U.S. military braced Monday for possible fallout from the Iran-Saudi Arabia rift on the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

"It's not having an effect at the moment," but "it's something we're tracking closely," Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said of the escalating dispute between the Sunni Saudi kingdom and the Shia Iranians over the execution by the Saudis of a Shia cleric.

Iran has major influence over Shia militias in Iraq, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made a point of keeping the Shia militias out of the recent offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that took the city center of mainly Sunni Ramadi about 70 miles east of Baghdad.

The U.S. had also warned that it would withhold air support for the Ramadi offensive if the Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, were involved.

In Syria, Iran has backed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia has provided financial support for Sunni rebels fighting to topple the regime.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are already fighting a proxy war in Yemen, where the Saudis are backing the government that was ousted from the capital, Sanaa, by Shia Houthi rebels.

The execution last week of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr -- one of 47 executions carried out by the Saudis on the same day -- widened the already deep Shia-Sunni sectarian rift in the region. In Tehran, protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy. In Iraq, two Sunni mosques in mostly Shia Hilla province were bombed over the weekend.

On Monday, Bahrain and Sudan joined the Saudis in severing relations with Iran. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters that air traffic and commercial relations with Iran were also being cut off.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) downgraded relations with Iran while not completely severing ties. Other Sunni Gulf Arab states such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, did not take any immediate action.

Russia and China followed the U.S. in urging restraint and diplomacy on both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"We want to see tensions reduced, we want to see dialogue restored," said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman. Kirby also noted that the U.S. had expressed "concerns" to the Saudis over the executions.

In a rare statement on Mideast tensions, the foreign ministry of China, which depends heavily on oil imports from the Mideast, urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to negotiate "to properly resolve differences, and work together to safeguard the region's peace and stability."

Russia's foreign ministry called on the Saudis and Iranians to "show restraint and to avoid any steps that might escalate the situation and raise tensions including interreligious ones."

Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com

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