State Department spokesman John Kirby called on Iran and Saudi Arabia to engage in bilateral dialogue to end their current diplomatic fight and said the United States should leave the dispute to regional players to resolve rather than use American “leverage” and influence.
Appearing Tuesday on CNN's New Day with host Alisyn Camerota, Kirby spoke about growing tension between the two Middle Eastern powers after Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations with Shiite-majority Iran in response to protestors assaulting the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which occurred shortly after the Saudi government executed a prominent Shiite cleric. Kirby said regional diplomacy is the best way to de-escalate the situation.
“I think it is important now that leaders from Saudi and leaders from Iran try to work this out bilaterally, continue some dialogue, get past this as much as they can,” Kirby said. “We believe that diplomatic engagement and conversation and dialogue are really, really important … the best antidote here to working our way through this.”
The spokesman added that the U.S. is communicating its concerns privately to countries in the region and urging them to focus on strategic issues like the fight against the Islamic State and ending the civil war in Syria.
Camerota then asked if America actually has any “clout” and influence to get the two rivals to engage in diplomacy if Riyadh ignored Washington's warnings to not execute Nimr al-Nimr, the Shiite cleric.
Kirby said that the U.S. should not exert its power and instead let Iran and Saudi Arabia work out the dispute themselves.
“This isn't about using leverage or clout,” the State Department spokesman argued. “This isn't about us making threats. This is about trying to get these two sides to work this out together through dialogue and through conversation.”
He added that U.S. leadership in the Middle East is unquestioned by anyone, but repeated how “this isn't the time for threats and for clout and for trying to use leverage. This is a time for these two leaders, locally, regionally, to get together and to work this out.”
Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been regional rivals competing for influence in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. Saudi Arabia considers itself the leader of Sunni Islam whereas Iran is the world's main Shiite power, and there are also ethnic tensions as the former is Arab while the latter is mainly Persian.
These differences are largely responsible for an ongoing geopolitical competition between the two states, which has manifested throughout the Middle East in recent years. Both countries are on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, for example, with Tehran supporting the regime of embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and Riyadh giving aid to rebel forces trying to remove him from power. Another example is Yemen, where Iran backs the Shiite Houthi group there, which overtook the Yemeni capital last year from president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a Saudi ally. Saudi Arabia has responded with strong military force in an effort to expel the Houthis from power.
But this tension reached a boiling point on Saturday after Saudi Arabia chose to execute Nimr al-Nimr, who has been highly critical of the Saudi government and called for its overthrow. When Iranians subsequently attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Riyadh cut ties with the Islamic Republic and gave its officials 48 hours to leave the country. On Monday, Saudi Arabia also ended flights to and trade with Iran.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have accused each other of fomenting violence in the Middle East and looking for excuses to undermine regional stability.
Some analysts have said that Saudi Arabia is acting out of fear and anger in an attempt to show that it will counter Iranian aggression on its own as it perceives the U.S. is seeking a strategic realignment in the region in favor of Iran.
The United States, which is allied with Saudi Arabia and has had an adversarial relationship with Iran since 1979 but recently struck a landmark diplomatic deal with Tehran over its nuclear program, has tried to not take sides and stay out of the spat publicly.
At Monday's State Department press briefing, Kirby refused to say that Iran was responsible for the attack on the Saudi embassy, and did not condemn Saudi Arabia's decision to execute the Shiite cleric on CNN, saying that it is “in keeping with a judicial process.” He did add, however, that the U.S. has raised concerns over the Saudi legal process.
Kirby also said that this growing feud may interfere with the U.S.-led effort to fight the Islamic State and seek a diplomatic resolution to the civil war in Syria, but he remains optimistic going forward.