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Saudi Arabia's foreign minister says diplomatic tensions over the execution of a prominent cleric could be eased if Iran — the most vocal critic of the killing — ratchets down the rhetoric.
"Very simple: Iran should back off, stop being aggressive, stop interfering, stop supporting terrorism," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir said in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday when asked how to resolve the escalating crisis.
"I hope that they will turn around and adapt a more conciliatory policy and a more normal policy, the way that countries and governments should behave. And I want to emphasize here that we have no enmity towards Iran, we have no enmity towards the Iranian people," Al-Jubeir said, adding that Saudi Arabia has merely been reacting to Iran's outrage.
The war of words has intensified between the two Middle East powers after thekingdom on Saturday executed 47 prisoners, including Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Iran, a Shiite Muslim-dominated nation, has condemned the actions of Saudi Arabia, which is predominantly Sunni.
Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran's capital of Tehran over the weekend, prompting Saudi Arabia to pull its diplomats from the country and cut ties with the Islamic republic.
Al-Jubeir on Tuesday labeled al-Nimr — a critic of Saudi policy who was convicted in 2014 of sedition — a "terrorist" akin to Osama bin Laden.
"The kingdom of Saudi should be commended for showing resolve and taking a firm position against people who kill the innocent, not condemned for it. And as far as the Iranians are concerned, what I find very puzzling is [al-Nimr] is a Saudi citizen, he committed a crime in Saudi Arabia, he was convicted in a Saudi court and the sentence was carried out by Saudi authorities. What does Iran have to do with this?" he asked, adding, "At a certain point, everybody reaches their limit. The Iranians have gotten away with murder — literally for more than 30 years."
He pointed to Iran protecting individuals linked to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, harboring al Qaeda leaders after 9/11 and smuggling weapons internationally as some of the alleged "nefarious" activities the Islamic republic is involved in.
But the executions conducted by Saudi Arabia — and the resulting embassy attack in Tehran — have divided countries in the region.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan broke all ties with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations. Kuwait, meanwhile, recalled its ambassador to Iran on Tuesday.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani struck back on Tuesday, saying Saudi Arabia could not hide its "crime" of executing al-Nimr. But he left the door open to working out a peaceful resolution.
"We believe diplomacy and negotiations are the best way to solve problems between countries," Rouhani was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA in a meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen in Tehran. "Regional countries can save the region from terrorism dangers through unity."
The Iranian government has also distanced itself from the Saudi embassy attack, and even suggested foreign elements organized it.
Brigadier General Mohsen Kazemeini, the top Revolutionary Guards commander in Tehran, joined the condemnation on Tuesday.
"This was a very wrong and incorrect action and there is no way this ugly action can be justified," he said, according to the Mizan Online news agency.
The comments appeared to be the first such criticism of the embassy attack by a member of the hardline Guards, who issued a harsh statement against Saudi Arabia about the execution of al-Nimr on Saturday.
Rouhani has referred to the embassy attackers as extremists and said Iran should put an absolute end to attacking embassies.
But Al-Jubeir blamed Iran for not stepping in to protect the embassy from the protesters, who threw stones and Molotov cocktails that set off a fire, and said Saudi Arabia's leaders believe the bombardment was "coordinated."
"You don't play these games if you're serious," he said. "Not when you have a crisis, you either defend the mission or you don’t."