U.S. fears of Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions prompt outreach by John Kerry

Willie Grace | 1/6/2016, 7:03 a.m.
Secretary of State John Kerry has been reaching out to Iranian and Saudi Arabian leaders and urging them to talk ...
Secretary of State John Kerry

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Secretary of State John Kerry has been reaching out to Iranian and Saudi Arabian leaders and urging them to talk to each other to resolve their differences amid U.S. concerns about escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, senior State Department officials told CNN.

"The secretary is very concerned with the direction this thing is going," one senior official said. "It's very unsettling to him that so many nations are choosing not to engage. With so much turmoil in the region, the last thing we need is for people not to be having conversations."

Kerry has spoken several times in the last few days with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and has also spoken with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. He plans to speak with other Gulf leaders Tuesday, the officials said.

The growing rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran is threatening U.S. efforts to end the Syrian civil war and stop ISIS in the Middle East, as Sunni states increasingly join the Gulf power in cutting or downgrading ties with Tehran.

The animosity between the long-wary Sunni and Shiite powers diminishes the chances that they will work together to end the Syrian violence in which ISIS has thrived and increases the likelihood of more regional instability, several former U.S. officials told CNN Monday.

While Saudi Arabia and Iran have been involved in proxy wars throughout the Middle East for years, Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and Iranian recriminations have brought tensions to a new low.

With Sunni states lining up behind Saudi Arabia, officials said the U.S. is not clear about whether they, or Iran, are using the fallout from the Saudi execution of Nimr al-Nimr for larger political aims in the region.

"It is difficult for us to know in the wake of the executions whether either side is using this to affect the outcome in Syria," a second senior State Department official said, "or whether this behavior by Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states is an effort to throw the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in the mix."

The official was referring to the deal curbing Iran's nuclear activity that Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers signed this summer. The official noted that the fact Sunni states are severing ties with Iran "gives fuel to the enemies of the deal that the rest of the region is not on board with it."

The U.S. is also concerned about how the tensions between Gulf states and Iran will affect efforts to push ISIS out of Iraq. Now that Iraqi forces have retaken Ramadi, Sunni tribes are seen as the best hope to hold the city. Officials hope that despite his close relationship with Iran, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will remain neutral and continue his outreach to Sunni tribal leaders.

This weekend, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the execution Saturday of al-Nimr, a prominent critic of the Saudi government. Riyadh responded by severing relations with Iran, including flights to and from the country, and several other Sunni-led nations followed suit.