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Saudi king draws Muslim leaders to Mecca amid Iran tensions

By AYA BATRAWYMay 31, 2019
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Saudi King Salman chairs an emergency summit of Gulf Arab leaders in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, May 30, 2019. King Salman opened an emergency summit of Gulf Arab leaders in the holy city of Mecca on Thursday with a call for the international community to use all means to confront Iran, but he also said the kingdom extends its hand for peace. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
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Saudi King Salman chairs an emergency summit of Gulf Arab leaders in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, May 30, 2019. King Salman opened an emergency summit of Gulf Arab leaders in the holy city of Mecca on Thursday with a call for the international community to use all means to confront Iran, but he also said the kingdom extends its hand for peace. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Muslim leaders from some 57 nations gathered in Islam’s holiest city of Mecca late Friday to discuss a breadth of critical issues ranging from a spike in tensions in the Persian Gulf, to Palestinian statehood, the plight of Rohingya refugees and the growing threat of Islamophobia.

Leaders from across the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, are meeting in Saudi Arabia as the Sunni-led kingdom seeks to isolate Shiite-led Iran over its policies in the region.

The summit follows two emergency Arab meetings the night before in Mecca criticizing Iran’s behavior and influence in countries like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Tensions have also spiked in recent weeks between Washington and Tehran, with the U.S. sending an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. The Trump administration’s hard-line approach with Iran began with U.S. withdrawal from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers last year and later with punishing economic sanctions on the country.

Saudi Arabia’s effort to bring regional leaders to Mecca reflects the kingdom’s desire to project a unified Muslim and Arab position on Iran to further isolate it internationally and counter Tehran’s growing reach in the Middle East.

The Islamic summit, however, draws political figures and heads of state from countries spanning Africa, the Middle East and Asia with widely varying policies and priorities.

But for the summit’s host, Saudi Arabia, confronting Iran is at the top of the agenda.

“We meet in Mecca to build the future of our peoples, to achieve security and stability for our Arab and Islamic countries, and to resolutely confront aggressive threats and subversive activities,” King Salman said in a tweet shortly before the start of the meeting.

Presenting a unified stance on Iran faces obstacles within OIC member-states, which includes Iran. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is attending the summit, has sought good ties with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example.

Some Arab and U.S. officials suspect Iran of being behind the alleged sabotage of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in past weeks. Iran was also accused of arming Yemeni rebels who launched a drone attack on a key Saudi oil pipeline.

Iran denies being involved in the incidents.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani had a message for OIC leaders ahead of the summit, urging them to stay focused on the rights of Palestinians. In a letter published on the presidential website Friday, Rouhani said Muslim leaders should not let the importance of Palestinian statehood be “marginalized” in the face of the Trump administration’s forthcoming peace plan. Glimpses of the still undisclosed plan suggest it sidelines or ignores the longstanding goal of Palestinian independence.

Rouhani also complained in the letter about not being invited to the Islamic summit, but expressed his country’s readiness to work with all Muslim leaders to confront the White House’s so-called “Deal of the Century.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi added further that Iran regrets “Saudi Arabia’s abuse of its privilege as the host” of the OIC “to sow division between Islamic and regional countries.”

The leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group told supporters in Lebanon on Friday that the Mecca summits are a Saudi call for help from Arab countries after Saudi Arabia failed to win in Yemen, where the kingdom and its allies have been at war since 2015 against Iranian-allied Yemeni rebels.

“It is a sign of failure,” Hassan Nasrallah said. “These summits are calls for help ...that express the failure and the inabilities in confronting the Yemeni army, popular resistance and people.”

Meanwhile, Syria said it rejects the final statement of Thursday night’s emergency summit, which criticized what it calls Iranian intervention into Syrian affairs.

Syria, whose membership in the Arab League remains suspended, said the statement is an unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of Syria.

Iraq, which lies on the fault line between Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab world, also rejected the Arab League’s final statement after the summit and was not a signatory to it.

A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement said the Iranian presence is “legitimate because it came at the request of the Syrian government and contributed to support Syria’s efforts in combating terrorism supported by some of the participants in this summit.”

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Associated Press writers Amir Vahdat in Tehran and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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