25th Oct 2016

EU in telephone diplomacy on Saudi-Iran crisis

  • Mogherini and Zarif at Iran nuclear talks last year (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini has urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to avoid escalation over the Saudi execution of a Shia Muslim cleric.

Saudi authorities, on Saturday (2 January), hung and shot 47 people, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia Muslim cleric, who had been arrested in 2004 on terrorism charges.

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He had taken part in anti-government protests, calling for democratic elections and for greater rights for the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim state.

His killing comes amid a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Syria and Yemen, which dates back to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the ensuing struggle for regional hegemony between Riyadh and Tehran.

But the sectarian rivalry has much deeper roots, going back to the Battle of Karbala 1,300 years ago.

EU states, in a joint statement on Saturday, said al-Nimr’s killing “raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights”.

It added that the move “has also the potential of enflaming further the sectarian tensions that already bring so much damage to the entire region”.

Mogherini the next day phoned the Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif.

She told al-Jubeir she “deplored the attack” on the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Sunday and voiced “concern for the risk of an escalation of sectarian violence in the Muslim world”.

Her office said Mogherini and Zarif agreed that “the security and stability of the whole region … is at stake.”

The EU readout added: “The international community and the main regional actors are actively working together to support a political solution for the crisis in Syria and to join forces against terrorists groups, and these efforts should not be jeopardised by new instability.”

Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally and oil supplier to the EU and US and buys billions of euros of Western arms each year.

But it has long faced criticism for supporting radical Islamist groups in Syria and further overseas, including in Europe.

The EU and the US, last year, finalised a deal on nuclear non-proliferation with Iran, auguring a thaw in relations and increasing Iran’s political and economic weight.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have also joined a fragile, US-led coalition to fight against Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim group, in Syria and to orchestrate a political settlement in Damascus.

The Syrian war has prompted the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

More than 1 million people, most of them Syrian refugees, fled to the EU last year, creating internal tension on border security and burden-sharing which threatens to unravel the Union, EU leaders have warned.

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