Saudi-Iran Clash Possible at Islamic ‘Unity’ Summit

By Patrick Goodenough | April 14, 2016 | 4:18am EDT
Organization of Islamic Cooperation foreign ministers hold preparatory meetings in Istanbul ahead of the leaders’ summit on Thursday and Friday. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is second from left. (Photo: OIC)

( – Tensions between a Saudi-led Sunni bloc and Shi’ite Iran could spill over during an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit beginning in Istanbul on Thursday, despite organizers’ attempts to focus on more traditional unifying subjects, topped by the Palestinian issue.

The theme of the annual summit is “Unity and Solidarity for Justice and Peace,” but ill-will between Iran and Saudi Arabia – which are backing opposing sides in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen – has been evident during preparatory meetings involving foreign ministers this week.

At issue is an ongoing campaign by Saudi Arabia to target and isolate Iran, in part through Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon. Last month the kingdom succeeded in getting the 22-member Arab League to declare Hezbollah a terrorist group. The only objections came from the Lebanese government – which includes Hezbollah in its cabinet – and the Shi’ite-led government of Iraq.

Now, with the OIC’s 57 members gathering, Saudi Arabia is hoping to get the wider Islamic bloc onboard too. At an earlier preparatory meeting several paragraphs, critical of both Iran and Hezbollah, were inserted into a draft final declaration for OIC leaders to adopt at the end of their summit. (Iran was prevented from attending that meeting, at the OIC headquarters in Jeddah, because the Saudis refused to issue visas.)

The Saudi ambassador to Turkey, Adil Mirdad, in comments reported by Saudi media Wednesday spoke of the need to adopt measures that counter Iran’s attempts to interfere in the region.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in Istanbul for meetings this week ahead of the summit on Thursday and Friday, called the Saudi effort “destructive” and against “the spirit of Islamic solidarity,” Iranian state media reported.

It would serve only the interests of the “Zionist regime,” he added.

Zarif recalled an earlier era when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein used OIC meetings to promote anti-Iran resolutions. Saudi officials should learn lessons from history and avoid going down the same, doomed, path, he said.

Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia has pushed a more aggressive line against longstanding rival Iran. The Sunni Gulf states are concerned that the negotiated nuclear deal and sanctions relief will boost Tehran’s regional ambitions and worsen its regional conduct.

Bilateral tensions deepened after Iranian protestors, angered by the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric, ransacked the Saudi embassy and a consulate in Iran last January.

Zarif said differences between the two Muslim nations should not be raised at gatherings like the OIC summit.

“Conflicts between countries should be solved via bilateral diplomatic efforts and should not be on the agenda of a multilateral meeting,” he said.

He accused Saudi Arabia of using the embassy attack as a “pretext” to embark on provocative actions against Iran.

Zarif also noted that Tehran had publicly condemned the embassy attack, and said it always sought to improve ties with neighboring countries.

With Salman and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani both attending the summit in Turkey, organizers are trying to ensure that topics more amenable to Islamic unity take precedence – chief among them, the Palestinian issue.

In speeches to foreign ministers, both OIC secretary-general Iyad Ameen Madani and Turkish Mevlut Cavusoglu, who will chair the meeting, drew attention to the importance of the Palestinian question. They also highlighted countering terrorism and “Islamophobia.”

A report on the OIC website said the summit’s outcome documents will “revolve around the Palestinian cause, the Arab-Israeli conflict, dispute cases and migration issues in the Islamic world, the situation of the Muslim local communities in non-member states and countering terrorism, extremism and violence.”

An earlier OIC statement said that, “At the top of the files to be discussed by the Istanbul summit is the Palestinian cause.”

“The summit is expected to issue a resolution on the matter, setting priorities of political action at international fora to defend the Palestinian rights and confirm the role and position of the OIC in support of Palestine at all levels,” it said. ‘It will also express support of international efforts to relaunch a collective political process, according to specific timetable, with a view to ending Israeli occupation.”

Historically, antagonism towards to Israel and backing for the Palestinian cause have been relatively effective unifying factors for the OIC. The bloc was established in 1969 as a response to a failed arson attempt at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque which many Muslims still view as an Israeli plot against Islam’s third most-revered site. The arsonist, a non-Jewish Australian, was later declared insane.

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