Revolutionary Guards hold Gulf drills as US tensions rise
DUBAI: Saudi Arabia has agreed to admit an Iranian diplomat to head an office representing Iranian interests in the kingdom, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported yesterday, in a rare move after the rivals broke off relations in 2016. “An informed diplomatic source said Sunday that Saudi Arabia had agreed to grant a visa to the head … of Iran’s interests section,” IRNA reported. “Observers saw this … as a positive diplomatic step in Tehran-Riyadh relations.” The office is expected to be set up within the Swiss diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia, based on an agreement signed in 2017. There was no immediate official Saudi reaction to the Iranian report.
The kingdom, the regional rival of mostly Shiite Iran, presents itself as the guardian of Islamic orthodoxy and custodian of its holiest places in Makkah and Madinah. Riyadh severed diplomatic relations after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran following the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia in Jan 2016. Both countries agreed to Switzerland’s offer of its traditional policy of good offices and to act as a diplomatic channel between the two countries. Saudi Arabia welcomed President Donald Trump’s decision in May to withdraw the United States from an international nuclear agreement with Iran and to re-impose economic sanctions on Tehran.
In an interview published on the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s website, the ministry spokesman said there had been a “breakthrough” in relations between the two regional rivals. “Up until two weeks ago, no visa had been issued for the names that we had submitted a long time ago,” spokesman Bahram Qasemi said. “But within the last week or two, there has been a breakthrough and I think there are indications that the office for the protection of interests will be opened,” he added. Tension between the two countries have surged in recent years, with Saudi Arabia and Iran supporting opposite sides in wars in Syria and Yemen and rival political parties in Iraq and Lebanon.
Separately, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed yesterday it had held war games in the Gulf over the past several days, saying they were aimed at “confronting possible threats” by enemies, IRNA reported. US officials told Reuters on Thursday that the United States believed Iran had started carrying out naval exercises in the Gulf, apparently moving up the timing of annual drills amid heightened tensions with Washington. “This exercise was conducted with the aim of controlling and safeguarding the safety of the international waterway and within the framework of the program of the Guards’ annual military exercises,” Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif said, according to IRNA.
The US military’s Central Command on Wednesday confirmed it has seen increased Iranian naval activity. The activity extended to the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway for oil shipments the Revolutionary Guards have threatened to block. Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari “expressed satisfaction over the successful conduct of the Guards naval exercise, emphasizing the need to maintain and enhance defense readiness and the security of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz and to confront threats and potential adventurous acts of enemies,” IRNA quoted Sharif as saying.
One US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said possibly more than 100 vessels were involved in the drills, including small boats. US officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the drills appeared designed to send a message to Washington, which is intensifying its economic and diplomatic pressure on Tehran but so far stopping short of using the US military to more aggressively counter Iran and its proxies.
Iran has been furious over Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear agreement and re-impose sanctions on Tehran. Senior Iranian officials have warned the country would not easily yield to a renewed US campaign to strangle Iran’s vital oil exports. But Iran did not appear interested in drawing attention to the drills. Iranian authorities had not commented on them earlier and several officials contacted by Reuters this week had declined to comment.
Last month, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei backed President Hassan Rouhani’s suggestion that Iran may block Gulf oil exports if its own exports are stopped. Rouhani’s apparent threat earlier in July to disrupt oil shipments from neighboring countries came in reaction to the looming US sanctions and efforts by Washington to force all countries to stop buying Iranian oil. – Agencies