WASHINGTON (AP/KTVU) — Concerned that inflamed tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia may threaten key foreign policy objectives in Iraq and Syria, among other places, the Obama administration toed a careful line Monday in seeking to calm a diplomatic storm that many fear could lead the longtime regional rivals to direct sectarian conflict.
The White House and State Department both appealed to Riyadh and Tehran to show restraint and avoid further exacerbating the rift between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite-ruled Iran. However, officials said the administration is loath to insert itself but wants to ensure the viability of the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, nascent attempts to end Syria's civil war, peace efforts in Yemen and the Iran nuclear deal.
"We don't want to see any progress that has been made or may be made on those issues affected by this, which is why (we) have been in communication with leaders there, to try to get tensions calmed down, to try to get dialogue started or restarted so that we can focus on these other very pressing issues in the region," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Sunday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and on Monday with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Kirby said. Kerry also planned a round of calls Monday to the foreign ministers of all the Sunni-led states in the Gulf region, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, officials said.
Bahrain followed Saudi Arabia's lead and severed diplomatic ties with Iran, while the UAE downgraded its diplomatic relations with it, after mobs attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
In addition to Kerry, other senior U.S. diplomats were in close contact with Saudi and Arab officials over the weekend, according to the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the delicate diplomacy.
Yet, officials made clear they did not want to mediate the dispute. They stressed it was up to local leaders to act to ease the situation.
"Ultimately, solutions to problems in this region must come from leaders in this region," Kirby told reporters. "So while we continue to make all efforts to facilitate dialogue, the emphasis is on local leadership to work through their differences and find the best path forward through this tension."
Of particular concern, U.S. officials said, are military operations against Islamic State extremists in Iraq that are being conducted by Iraqi security forces, which answer to an Iran-friendly government, and Sunni and Shiite militias. That cooperation has shown gains in recent weeks, notably with the Iraqi recapture of the provincial capital of Ramadi.
Officials were preparing for a high-level U.S. conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to stress the importance of continuing the Iraqi government's outreach to Sunni militias, the officials said.
Also of concern is the state of the Syrian peace effort, which is supposed to swing into high gear in late January with U.N.-sponsored negotiations between Saudi-backed opposition forces and the Iran-supported government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A U.S. official said Kerry had spoken Sunday with the U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, to gauge any impact Saudi-Iranian developments might have on the planned Jan. 25 start of negotiations. There was no immediate indication that those talks would be disrupted, the official said.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest urged Saudi Arabia and Iran not to let their dispute derail fragile talks aimed at securing a cease-fire and a political transition to end the war in Syria.
"We will also be cutting off all air traffic to and from Iran. We will be cutting off all commercial relations with Iran and we will have a travel ban against people traveling to Iran," said Saudi Foreign Minister Abel Al-Jubeir.
It's a clash between two Muslim countries that represent opposing Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.
"Hopefully they will continue to engage," Earnest said. "It is so clearly in the interests of both countries to advance a political solution to the situation inside of Syria."
Meanwhile, the United Nations said de Mistura will head to Saudi Arabia and Iran this week to try to ensure the talks go ahead.
U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said de Mistura "hopes that the adverse consequences of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran do not affect the peace process with the Syrians."
Saudi Arabia's U.N. ambassador says his country backs efforts to bring peace to Syria and Yemen and its break in diplomatic relations with Iran should have no effect on upcoming talks.
Ambassador Abdallah al-Moualimi told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York that Saudi Arabia, which supports Syria's opposition, will attend the next round of talks on Syria in Geneva. Iran, which backs the Syrian government of Assad, has not said whether it will attend.
UC Berkeley Professor Michael Nacht has worked at the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense and says the U.S. must tread carefully.
"I know this is sort of mind-fogging to a lot of people but the fact is, this is a very serious moment," Professor Nacht said.
Nacht says the U.S. has a long relationship with Saudi Arabia's Sunni royal family, which has a new king and may have seen the opposition cleric as a threat.
"It has a substantial Shia minority in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia where the oil fields are and this cleric was basically speaking on behalf of those people," Nacht said.
Nacht says the U.S. is trying to stay neutral, however, to avoid jeopardizing last July's nuclear deal with Iran and the joint operation to fight ISIS.