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Saudi Arabia downplays rift with Iran

| Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that its feud with Iran would not interfere with Syrian peace talks scheduled to begin later this month, signaling an easing of the tensions that erupted after the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Kuwait meanwhile joined the list of Saudi allies to cut or downgrade ties with Iran, saying that it has recalled its ambassador to Tehran in solidarity with the kingdom following Riyadh's severance of diplomatic relations with Iran on Sunday.

The rift is the most serious between the region's rival Sunni and Shiite powers since Iran and Saudi Arabia last cut ties in the 1980s over tensions stemming from the Iran-Iraq war, and it raised the specter of a wider conflict in a region already convulsed by several wars.

Among them is the war in Syria, which has raged unchecked for nearly five years and only now has emerged as a key priority for the Obama administration's foreign policy team. Bringing peace to Syria will be the administration's “foremost challenge” for the year ahead, Secretary of State John Kerry said in an opinion piece marking the New Year.

Central to the challenge is the effort to reconvene peace talks in Geneva that failed spectacularly two years ago, after less than a month. The new rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran had imperiled those talks, which could not proceed without the support of both countries, as sponsors of the rival factions in Syria's war.

Kerry spent most of the past two days on the telephone with Saudi and Iranian leaders as well as other coalition countries in the region “to encourage de-escalation,” according to Brett McGurk, President Obama's special envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State.

“One of the key things on Kerry's mind is not letting the Vienna process stall or fall backward,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby, referring to a statement in Vienna last year proposing ways to end the Syrian war that was agreed to by both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

After meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh on Tuesday, the United Nations' special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he had been assured that Saudi Arabia would not allow the latest falling-out with Iran to interfere with the talks.

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