Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Saudi Arabia asks nations to respond to Iran with 'firmness'

Foreign ministers from Muslim countries gather before summits on Iran in Makkah

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister on Thursday urged Muslim nations to confront recent attacks blamed on Iran with "all means of force and firmness".

Ibrahim Al Assaf’s comments came at a meeting of foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, before summits on the matter began in Makkah on Thursday.

Mr Al Assaf said the sabotage of boats off the coast of the UAE and a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline and pumping stations by Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels requires "more efforts to counter the terrorist acts of extremist and terrorist groups".

Iran has denied being involved in the attacks. An Iranian official attended the meeting with Mr Al Assaf on Thursday, but Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was absent.

On their arrival at the airport, each leader was shown Houthi military items, such as a destroyed drone, missiles and mortar shells used in the conflict in Yemen.

The leaders were given a brief explanation of the weapons by Col. Turki Al Malki, spokesman for the Arab Coalition fighting the Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

Adel Al Jubeir, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said the responsibility to ease the regional tension lay with Tehran.

"A war would be damaging to everyone in the region and we want to avoid it at all costs," Mr Al Jubeir told the BBC. "We have made that very clear. The ball is really in Iran’s court."

The summits coincide with the final days of Ramadan.

Saudi Arabia will use the Makkah gatherings to send a clear and powerful message to Iran, which is also a member of the organisation.

The Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani, will also attend the summits in Saudi Arabia on Thursday and Friday.

It will be the highest-level visit since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Doha two years ago over its support for extremists and Iran.

The visit comes as tightening American sanctions raise tension in the Gulf a year after President Donald Trump pulled the US out of a 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran.

The US has accused Tehran of being behind the at least three attacks this month, which also included a rocket strike near the US embassy in Baghdad.

On Wednesday, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in Abu Dhabi that there had also been a previously unknown attempt to attack the Saudi oil port of Yanbu, which he blamed on Iran.

Mr Bolton said Tehran's decision to back away from some commitments its nuclear deal proved that it wanted nuclear weapons.

He said the US had not seen any further Iranian attacks since the US recently sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Arabian Gulf.

"The point is to make it very clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kinds of action risk a very strong response from the US," Mr Bolton said.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan said about 900 troops sent to the Middle East, who will reinforce the tens of thousands already in the region, would be posted to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Another 600 attached to a Patriot missile battery have had their stay in the region extended.

"The Iranian threat to our forces in the region remains," Mr Shanahan said.

Mr Bolton's trip to the UAE comes days after Mr Trump said that negotiations with Iran would be welcome.

"We're not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear," he said. "We're looking for no nuclear weapons."

But before becoming national security adviser, Mr Bolton for years publicly called for overthrowing Iran's government.

"I don't back away from any of it," he said on Thursday. "Those are positions I took as a private citizen.

"Right now I'm a government official. I advise the president. I'm the national security adviser, not the national security decision-maker. It's up to him to make those decisions."

Updated: May 31, 2019 01:18 AM

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