Switzerland to be diplomatic channel for Saudi Arabia and Iran

Riyadh and Tehran have not been speaking to each other since they broke off diplomatic relations in January 2016. The small Alpine country has just finalized an agreement to end the silence.

The Swiss government said on Wednesday that it would act as a go-between for Saudi Arabia and Iran, indirectly re-opening diplomatic relations between the rival Middle Eastern countries.

News | 04.01.2016

The Swiss executive assembly, the Federal Council, approved a "protecting power mandate" between Riyadh and Tehran that both governments later agreed to.

Under the mandate, the Swiss embassy in Riyadh is to offer consular services such as travel advice and aid to Iranians in Saudi Arabia. The Swiss embassy in Tehran would reciprocate in the arrangement.

The Swiss Foreign Affairs Department said it would also conduct other diplomatic actions on behalf of either state "if requested by the states in question."

Middle East | 02.02.2016

Read more: Steinmeier's Iran-Saudi double-header, a difficult diplomatic drive

Healing severed ties?

The traditionally neutral Alpine country had offered the arrangement to Saudi Arabia and Iran after both countries severed diplomatic relations in January 2016.

The rupture occurred after protestors, angered by Riyadh's decision to execute a Shiite cleric on terrorism charges, attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

Most Iranians are Shia, a minority confession within Islam, whereas most Saudis are Sunni, the confession of most Muslims worldwide.

Read more: Saudi's cut of diplomatic ties 'a big mistake' says Iran

Since the breakdown in relations, the two oil-rich countries have been vying for regional dominance by supporting opposing sides in local conflicts. Iran has sustained Yemeni rebels against a Saudi-led intervention in the country and supported Shiite militias in Syria against forces backed by Riyadh.

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The new mandate is not the first Switzerland has agreed to. The country has also acted as a go-between for the US and Cuba and the US and Iran.

amp/rc (dpa, AP)

Shiites mark Ashura in a politically charged Muslim world

The day of mourning

While Sunni Muslims also commemorate the Ashura - the 10th of Muharram in Islamic calendar - for Shiites, the murder of Hussein and his family by the army of the Ummayad Caliph Yazid marks the formal split from the religious establishment. Every year, Shiites (the followers of Ali – cousin of Islam's prophet Muhammad and Hussein's father) relive the battle of Karbala and mourn Hussein's death.

Shiites mark Ashura in a politically charged Muslim world

Symbol of resistance

Shiites, and many Sunnis also, regard Hussein as a symbol of "peaceful resistance" against Yazid's "tyrannical rule." The prophet's grandson refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, which resulted in a battle in Karbala, located southwest of Baghdad. Shiites around the world commence the first month in Islamic calendar, Muharram, by holding processions and enacting episodes from the historic battle.

Shiites mark Ashura in a politically charged Muslim world

Symbolism

Self-flagellation, including the beating of the chest and walking barefoot on fire, are among the Ashura rituals. Liberal Muslims criticize the use of daggers and "self-torture" as regressive symbols that have no connection with the modern world. For devout Shiites, it is their way of feeling the pain that Hussein and his family had to bear during the Battle of Karbala.

Shiites mark Ashura in a politically charged Muslim world

Anti-imperialist posture

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Shiite Islam, as well as events like the Ashura, have taken on an anti-West and anti-US posture. Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the theocratic Iran, used Karbala as a political symbol against imperialism. After the revolution, Tehran actively promoted its version of Shiite Islam to other Muslim countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Shiites mark Ashura in a politically charged Muslim world

Saudi-Iranian rivalry

For Shiites in the Middle Eastern countries under Iran's influence, the Ashura commemorations are a political statement against Saudi Arabia, which endorses a hardline Wahhabi Islam. For Sunnis who toe Riyadh's line, the Ashura rituals are "un-Islamic." For Sunni militants active in the Middle East, and groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Shiites are apostates.

Shiites mark Ashura in a politically charged Muslim world

Attacks on Shiites

Sunni extremists in Afghanistan have repeatedly targeted Hazara Shiites, a peaceful minority community. In July 2016, at least 80 people were killed in an attack on Shiite Hazaras in Kabul. The "Islamic State" (IS) militant group claimed responsibility for the attack. Islamist groups regularly attack Shiites in neighboring Pakistan also.

Shiites mark Ashura in a politically charged Muslim world

Shiite extremist groups

Traditionally, Shiites in Pakistan have been closer to a mystical version of Indian Islam, but in the past few decades, the Iranian influence has caused a radical transformation. Political analysts say Iran-backed Shiite extremists groups are also active in the South Asian country.

Shiites mark Ashura in a politically charged Muslim world

Heightened security

Although the Ashura is a religious event, Pakistani authorities beef up security around the Shiite processions. Banned militant organizations have bombed the Ashura rallies in the past. The security is also tight in other Sunni-majority countries during this time.