Iran throws accusations at Saudi fighter jets of attacking Iranian embassy in Yemen
Tehran accuses Saudis of ‘deliberate and intentional act’ as diplomatic crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensifies further
Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of launching airstrikes against the Iranian embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, which it said has damaged its diplomatic building and left a number of guards wounded.
The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, was reported by the state television on Thursday as condemning what he called “a deliberate” provocation by Saudis as tensions rise between Tehran and Riyadh amid an escalating diplomatic crisis.
“This deliberate and intentional act by the Saudi Arabian government is in violation of all international conventions and legal treaties regarding the protection and impunity of diplomatic compounds under all circumstances,” Jaberi Ansari was quoted as saying by the website of the state-run IRIB network.
“Iran holds the government of Saudi Arabia responsible for this act and wounding of a number of embassy staff and damages made to its building.” The accuracy of the claim was unclear: media reports suggested that the mission itself was not hit, but shrapnel from an attack on a house nearby had wounded embassy guards. The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has said it is investigating the Iranian accusation.
The strain on already-tense relations between Tehran and Riyadh was exacerbated at the weekend when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric critical of the al-Saud kingdom, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
That execution drew worldwide condemnation, including from the UN chief. In Iran, a predominantly Shia country, hardliners showed their anger by storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran and setting it ablaze, which resulted in Riyadh and a number of its allies reacting by severing diplomatic tieswith Tehran or downgrading relations.
Somalia became the latest country to cut ties with Tehran on Thursday, following Sudan, Djibouti and Bahrain. The United Arab Emirates has downgraded relations and Qatar and Kuwait have reacted by recalling their ambassador from Iran.
Also on Thursday, the Iranian government banned all imports of goods from Saudi Arabia and voted to extend the suspension of all off-season pilgrimages to the country. Saudi Arabia had previously banned its citizens from travelling to Iran but had said Iranians were still able to perform the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, although that now seems unviable in practice.
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at international thinktank Chatham House, warned of the regional reverberations of the ongoing Saudi-Iranian crisis.
“The escalation is alarming because Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposing sides of several conflicts in the region including Syria and Yemen,” she told the Guardian. “They also back different factions in different countries that could see an escalation of conflict, notably [in] Lebanon and also Iraq, so this could have an effect in the wider Middle East.
Kinninmont said it was simplistic to blame just one side in the crisis. “The international community also has some responsibility because the regime change in Iraq and the nuclear deal with Iran has changed the regional order and upset a balance which was not perfectly stable to begin with, but which has now been quite destabilised, so I hope that this crisis focuses international attention on the need to follow the nuclear deal with a diplomatic process bringing Iran and Saudis to some kind of detente.”
Iranian officials, including military figures, have stepped up their rhetoric against Saudis in the wake of the worsening crisis. Hossein Salami, a senior commander of the powerful Iranian Revolutionay Guards, used strong language on Thursday to condemn the al-Saud kingdom.
“The policies of the Saudi regime will have a domino effect and they will be buried under the avalanche they have created,” he was quoted as saying by Tasnim news, which is affiliated to the Guards. “If the Al Saud regime does not correct this path, it will collapse in the near future.”
One day earlier, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, urged Saudi Arabia to stop “adding fuel to the fire” and said Riyadh has stood opposed to Iran’s diplomacy over the past two years, especially regarding the landmark nuclear agreement. Saudis are increasingly anxious about Tehran’s reintergration to the international community after the nuclear accord and are unhappy about the mending of relations between Tehran and Washington.
The two countries are rivals in the Middle East and are engaged in proxy wars in various neighbouring countries for greater share of influence in the region. They are particularly at odds over the conflict in Yemen between Houthi rebels allied with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who led the country from 1990 to 2012, and forces loyal to the ousted president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Iran has aligned itself with the Houthis and has strongly objected to the Saudi airstrikes, which are aimed at halting an advance by the rebel forces and reinstating Hadi.
It was not clear whether the Iranian embassy in Yemen’s capital was still in use by Iranian diplomats or if it had been deserted in the wake of ongoing fighting like many other foreign missions in the city. The Saudi-led coalition’s spokesman, Brigadier General Ahmed Asser, has alleged that Houthis have used such compounds to launch missile airstike.
Houthi fighters control the capital city Sana’a and have spread out across the country. They are now engaged in heavy street fighting in a number of other major cities.
Saudis and their Sunni Arab allies view Houthi fighters – who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam – as Iranian proxies and have accused Tehran of giving them military backing, a charge the Iranians vehemently deny.