(Updated to correct date in caption)
(CNSNews.com) – Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal on Thursday accused Iran of “taking over” Iraq, and voiced concern about its involvement in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen – citing the same four countries Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned this week that Iran was “gobbling up.”
In a joint press appearance with Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh, Saud said while the kingdom was obviously worried about Iran’s nuclear program, “we’re equally concerned about the nature of action and hegemonistic tendencies that Iran has in the region.”
“We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq and God knows where,” he said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Tuesday mocked Netanyahu for saying during his speech before Congress that Iran was “gobbling up” nations in the region, citing its domination of Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
“‘Gobbled up.’ That’s not a technical term I would probably use,” she said.
Kerry in Riyadh also referred to Iran’s activities in the four countries.
“Even as we engage with these discussions with Iran around its nuclear program, we will not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula – Yemen particularly,” he said.
Asked about reports that a top Iranian general is coordinating a campaign to oust Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadists from Tikrit in Salahuddin province, he stressed that the effort has been “put together by the Iraqis, formulated by the Iraqis, executed by the Iraqis.”
Kerry acknowledged that Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)-Qods Force, has been “on the ground” and was “playing a role.”
“Everybody has known that there are some movement of Iranian forces, both in and out of the northern part of Iraq, who have been engaged in fighting [ISIS] since the very beginning,” he said, adding that the U.S. is “not coordinating with them.”
Citing unnamed Iraqi sources, a leading pan-Arab daily, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, reported Thursday that the U.S. and Iranian governments had reached a “special understanding” over the upcoming offensive against ISIS in Tikrit.
In a television interview late last year, President Obama denied that the U.S. would coordinate with Iran against ISIS, but added that “there’s some deconflicting, in the sense that, since they have some troops or militias they control in and around Baghdad, we let them know, ‘don’t mess with us, we’re not here to mess with you. We’re focused on our common enemy.’”
Alluding to concerns about the sectarian implications of Shi’ite Iran helping majority-Shi’ite Iraq to fight Sunni jihadists, Kerry said Thursday that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had won support for the operation from Sunni tribes in Salahuddin and from Sunni politicians.
He said that as the Iraqi army steps up, “militias and external actors are going to be less and less imperative and needed.”
Kerry’s Saudi counterpart was considerably more frank in his comments on Iran’s activity in Iraq.
“The situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what we’re worried about,” Saud said in reply to a question. “Iran is taking over the country.”
“This is what is fomenting sectarian struggles in Iraq. We shared no sectarian struggles before the involvement of Iran in Iraq …”
Kerry flew to Riyadh from Iran nuclear negotiations in Switzerland, to brief Saudi Arabia and representatives of neighboring Gulf states on the state of the talks.
He gave an assurance that, even if a nuclear agreement was reached with Iran in the coming weeks, the U.S. would continue to keep the pressure on Tehran over its other activities.
“Making the Gulf states safer and providing for greater security begins – notwithstanding Iran’s other activities, which we all object to – it begins by preventing them from having a nuclear weapon,” he said. “So the first step is make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”
“But nothing else changes the next day with respect to our joint commitment to stand up against any other kind of interference or violation of international law or support for terrorism,” Kerry added. “And Iran remains a labeled state supporter of terrorism. So those efforts will continue.”
Soleimani’s Qods Force is the IRGC’s unit responsible for terror operations abroad.
Soleimani has been designated three times under a U.S. executive order designed to disrupt funding to terrorists – in 2007, to punish the Qods Force and IRGC for supporting terrorism and nuclear activities; in May 2011, for supporting the Syrian regime’s repression; and in October 2011, when he was one of five Iranians designated for their roles in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador at a Washington restaurant.