Newspaper article International New York Times

Saudi and Iranian Rivalry Resurfaces in Iraq Crisis

Newspaper article International New York Times

Saudi and Iranian Rivalry Resurfaces in Iraq Crisis

Article excerpt

After Iran's president declared readiness to defend Iraq's Shiite holy sites, Saudi leaders issued a barely veiled admonishment not to intervene.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Islamic rivals of the Middle East, have appeared to escalate over the Sunni extremist insurgency convulsing Iraq, as President Hassan Rouhani of Iran declared readiness to defend Iraq's Shiite holy sites with force and Saudi leaders issued a barely veiled admonishment not to intervene.

The sharpened tone coming from both countries, which have long regarded each other with suspicion -- Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite and Saudi Arabia Sunni -- suggested that their recent tentative efforts to improve relations might be faltering over the Iraq crisis.

Both countries have long vied for influence in the region and support opposing sides in Syria's civil war.

The Saudis are also increasingly concerned about Iran's efforts to ease its longstanding estrangement with the United States, a close strategic and economic partner of Saudi Arabia. While the United States and Iran differ on many issues, most notably Iran's nuclear program and the Syria conflict, they see a shared interest in arresting Iraq's Sunni insurgency.

In a televised speech in Iran on Wednesday, Mr. Rouhani expressed full support for the Iraqis who have joined volunteer militias to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Sunni extremist group that straddles both countries. It has seized large sections of northern and western Iraq over the past few weeks, threatened to march on Baghdad and vowed to obliterate cities and shrines dear to Shiites.

"Regarding the holy Shiite shrines in Karbala, Najaf, Kadhimiya and Samarra, we announce to the killers and terrorists that the big Iranian nation will not hesitate to protect holy shrines," the president vowed in the speech to a crowd in Lorestan Province in western Iran. …

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