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Obama sides with Iran over Saudi Arabia

Obama sides with Iran over Saudi Arabia

By Josh Rogin & Eli Lake for Bloomberg View

As the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia heats up, the Barack Obama administration is trying to straddle the fence and not take sides, but its actions tell a different story -- they all seem to favor Tehran.

Following the Saudi government’s announcement Saturday that it had executed 47 prisoners, including a popular Shiite cleric, the U.S. State Department did two things. First, it issued a statement expressing concern that Riyadh’s actions were “exacerbating sectarian tensions.” Then Secretary of State John Kerry called Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, urging him to try to de-escalate the crisis. 

Spokesmen for the White House and State Department on Monday insisted that the U.S. was not taking a side, and that Kerry was set to call Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. But U.S. and Arab diplomats tell us that America's Gulf allies, who feel most threatened by Iran, see things very differently.

The State Department has criticized Saudi Arabia before for executions and its human rights record. But this time, its spokesman, John Kirby, undermined the Saudi claim that Iran's government was culpable for the attacks on its embassy, noting in his opening statement that Iran appears to have arrested some of those responsible.

What's more, the Saudis argue that this time the U.S. criticism went too far because the cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was inciting terrorism. "We do not accept any criticism of the kingdom’s judicial system," al-Jubeir said Sunday. "What happened was that those who have led terrorist operations that led to the killing of innocent people, were convicted."

Following Saudi Arabia's decision Sunday to cut diplomatic ties and end Iran-bound commercial flights, Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates also downgraded relations. One senior Gulf diplomat told us he expected other Sunni Arab states would follow suit.

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