Ball in Saudi Court

Ball in Saudi Court Ball in Saudi Court

President Hassan Rouhani said restoring diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia was a priority, but that it was up to Riyadh to take the initiative.

The president made the statement in a Thursday interview with France 24, Le Monde and France Culture.

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations after protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran following the January 2 execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in the Persian Gulf kingdom's Eastern Province. Speaking to France 24 in an interview during his visit to Paris, Rouhani condemned the attack on the Saudi Embassy.

"We condemned this action. Our responsibility was to find the culprits of the attack. We have found them, we arrested them. They are in prison."

Iran has said that around 100 suspects have been arrested following the Saudi Embassy attack.

Saudi Arabia's moves to cut diplomatic ties "were not proportionate to the incidents", Rouhani said, adding that the Persian Gulf monarchy was "muddling the game".  

"What is certain is that the country that broke off our relations must be the one to try to restore them."

Escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have cast a shadow on recent attempts to find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. Iran and Russia back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while the Persian Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, support Syrian rebels.

When asked if he thought Saudi Arabia helped fund terrorism, Rouhani refused to be drawn into a war of words. The Saudis are "fellow Muslims", he said.

  Restoration of US Ties

Rouhani also hoped that Iran's diplomatic ties with the United States, severed since 1979, would someday be restored.

"When you look at Iran and the United States, there are quite a few difficult questions that have been present for the past 30 years. It will be difficult to resolve all of them in a short time," said Rouhani.

"The United States was at the same negotiating table as Iran [during the nuclear talks in Vienna], which was something unimaginable only a few years ago."

Rouhani's interview came at the end of a historic visit to France following the start of a gradual lifting of nuclear sanctions in January. The visit was dominated by bilateral trade deals between major French and Iranian companies.

  Syria Conflict

Political relations between Tehran and Paris, tense in recent years over Iran's nuclear program, have been further strained by the Syrian conflict. During his trip to France, Rouhani was keen to play down these differences by emphasizing the common fight against the self-styled Islamic State militant group in Syria and Iraq.

"The priority is the return to peace, the return of refugees to their homes," said Rouhani. "Terrorists behead innocents … We must fight, everyone should fight [IS]."

In order to be effective in the fight against the IS, Rouhani stressed the importance of Assad's government.

"In the short term, there is no alternative but to support the Syrian Army. Without the strength of the [Syrian government], the army cannot effectively fight [the militants]."

UN-backed Syria peace talks were expected to start on Friday in Geneva to try to end a conflict that has left nearly 260,000 dead. But Rouhani was not optimistic about the talks.

"The Syrian issue is too complicated. It would be too optimistic to believe that we could reach an agreement within weeks."