Arab foreign ministers on Sunday accused Iran of interfering in the affairs of other Middle East states and undermining regional security, as officials met at an emergency Arab League session to discuss escalating tensions in the region.
The crisis between the Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Muslim power Iran, both major oil exporters, started when Saudi authorities executed Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on January 2, triggering outrage among Shi’ites across the Middle East.
In response, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, prompting Riyadh to sever relations. Tehran then cut all commercial ties with Riyadh, and banned pilgrims from traveling to Mecca.
The Arab League on Sunday backed Saudi Arabia in its continuing diplomatic spat with Iran, triggered by the kingdom’s execution of a dissident Shiite cleric, condemning Tehran for failing to protect Saudi diplomatic sites in the Persian country.
“The Arab League won’t accept Iranian intervention in the Arab region and sowing sectarian strife,” Nabil al-Araby, secretary-general of the organization, said in a televised news conference following an emergency session of the pan-Arab group requested by Riyadh at its headquarters in Cairo.
The statement was supported by all the member states except Lebanon, which has a large Shiite population and strong political ties with Tehran.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, two of the largest economies in the Middle East, are vying for more influence across the region, mostly along sectarian lines.
The statement stopped short of recommending any collective action against Iran—such as the severing of all ties with the Islamic Republic—but said diplomats from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would form a subcommittee to continue discussions on the matter.
Protesters in Iran last week attacked Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Iran’s second-largest city, Mashhad. The protests came after Saudi Arabia executed prominent cleric Nemer al-Nemer.
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said in the news conference that this position by Arab countries was not just prompted by the attacks on its missions but rather as a reaction to what he described as three decades of destabilizing activities by Iran.
“Saudi Arabia and the Arab world have reached a point where we need to say ‘enough’,” he said. “If Iran wants to play a positive role in the region then it must deal with its neighbors based on the principle of good neighborliness.”
The Arab League session on Sunday comes after the Saudi foreign minister met his counterparts in the Gulf Cooperation Council—a six-country bloc comprising Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman—on Saturday, where they urged Iran to “stop activities that cause instability in the region.”
The Arab League is a regional organization that has 22 member states formed in 1945 to promote cooperation among middle eastern nations. It is headquartered in Cairo. Saudi Arabia enjoys influence within the group as a main conduit between the region and the West and as a provider of aid to many member states.
Iranian officials have condemned the attacks on Saudi diplomatic compounds, but they accuse the kingdom of instigating sectarian tensions to cover up economic and political problems at home.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber-Ansari said Sunday that Saudi Arabia was also trying to counter Iran’s success in the nuclear deal it reached with six world powers in July, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Iran is to get relief from international sanctions under the nuclear deal when it goes into force this year, freeing up more than $100 billion of frozen revenues from oil exports and reconnecting it to the global financial system after a decade of isolation.
In exchange, the Islamic Republic agreed to decommission uranium enrichment centrifuges and take other steps to address Western concerns that its nuclear program sought to develop weapons.
Mr. Jaber-Ansari said Sunday that Saudi Arabia was trying to prevent the nuclear deal from going through by “spreading Iranophobia across the world.” Iran wanted to see a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East, including with Saudi Arabia, he said.
Amid the growing standoff with Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Sunday that Iran wouldn’t allow “Saudi adventurism” to affect the peace process in Syria, according to a statement on the ministry website. Saudi Arabia was trying to use escalating tensions to influence the peace process, he said, but Iran would thwart this.
Mr. al-Jubeir said Sunday that he didn’t expect the latest crisis with Iran to affect the Syria talks.
Iran was invited to take part in international talks on Syria for the first time in October, raising hopes that its presence would help end a five-year-long civil war. Iran is the key financial and military backer of President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia is backing rebel groups seeking to oust him.
Syria is one of a number of battlefields in the Middle East where Saudi Arabia and Iran are at odds. In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Sunni states is battling Houthi rebels who have Iran’s political backing. The Houthis adhere to the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam.