UNITED NATIONS — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern Monday at the escalation in tensions between regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, urging both countries to avoid actions that could exacerbate the situation between them and in the region as a whole.
Bahrain and Sudan have also said they are cutting their diplomatic ties to Tehran, while the United Arab Emirates has downgraded its relations with Iran.
“This escalation is likely to have regional consequences in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and beyond,” said George Washington University international affairs professor Edmund Ghareeb. He warned it could hurt efforts to push the fledgling peace process forward in Syria. The U.N. hopes to hold the first round of intra-Syrian talks later this month.
“This escalation is likely to complicate the efforts of the United Nations, Russia and the United States to bring the parties together,” Ghareeb added.
The U.N. chief said the announcement of a break in Saudi diplomatic relations with Tehran was “deeply worrying.”
Riyadh’s Sunni Muslim leaders had announced Sunday that they would sever diplomatic relations with Shi’ite Iran after demonstrators stormed the country’s embassy in Tehran.
The protesters were angry over the execution of a Shi’ite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The government announced his execution on January 2, along with 46 other prisoners on terrorism-related charges. Nimr was an outspoken critic of the Saudi monarchy.
Secretary-General Ban’s spokesman said the U.N. chief spoke Sunday with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and on Monday with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir.
The U.N. said Ban expressed his condemnation to Zarif of the attack at the Saudi embassy in Tehran and urged the foreign minister to take the necessary measures to protect diplomatic facilities in the country. He also reiterated his deep dismay over the execution of Sheikh Nimr and the 46 other prisoners.
‘Disappointment over the execution’
In his call with the Saudi foreign minister, the U.N. said the secretary-general “reiterated his views on capital punishment and his disappointment over the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr, whose case he had raised with the Saudi authorities on several occasions.”
The secretary-general has previously said the death penalty “has no place in the 21st century” and has urged a worldwide moratorium on its use.
Ban also urged Saudi Arabia to renew its commitment to a cease-fire in Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Ban’s office said he urged both foreign ministers to “avoid any actions that could further exacerbate the situation” between two countries and in the region as a whole.
The U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was on his way to Riyadh Monday to meet with officials. He said this is a “very worrisome development” and he would assess the implications of it on the Syria peace process. He will visit Tehran later this week.
The U.N.’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is also due in the region on Wednesday to try to secure a new cease-fire after the Saudis ended a shaky one put in place on December 15 that coincided with peace talks in Geneva. Both sides repeatedly violated that truce.