WASHINGTON: The United States has urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to avoid escalating regional and sectarian tensions, which flared up after the Saudis executed a Shia cleric and 46 others on Saturday.

US State Department officials also expressed their concerns on the executions and called on the Saudi government to “respect and protect” human rights and “permit peaceful expression of dissent.”

“We are calling on both Iran and Saudi Arabia to refrain from any actions that could further heighten tensions,” a US State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters in Washington on Sunday.

She also urged the Iranian government to protect the Saudi embassy in Tehran. A large crowd gathered outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran early on Sunday morning to protest the execution of prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

“We support the right to peaceful protest but we condemn in the strongest terms any attacks on diplomatic properties,” Ms Trudeau said.

In a separate statement, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the US had previously expressed its concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia and had frequently raised these concerns at high levels of the Saudi government.

“We reaffirm our calls on the government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights, and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases,” he said.

“The United States also urges the government of Saudi Arabia to permit peaceful expression of dissent and to work together with all community leaders to defuse tensions in the wake of these executions.”

Mr Kirby said that the US was particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions” at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.

“In this context, we reiterate the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions,” he said.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2016

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