One week after we reported that the head of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard (which two weeks ago was designated by the US as a terrorist organization), Qassem Soleimani, was observed in Erbil last Sunday where he met with Kurdistan regional president Barzani to "discuss" the growing crisis - the latest indication of Iran's surging influence in the region - and just days before Iraq sent in troops assisted by Iranian militia into Iraq's Kurdish region, which promptly regained control over the oil-rich Kirkuk region, on Sunday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Iranian "militias" need to leave Iraq as the fight against Islamic State militants was coming to an end.
“Certainly Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fighting against (the Islamic State group) is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said during a press conference in Riyadh, where the U.S. diplomat is holding talks with top Gulf officials. "All foreign fighters need to go home,” he added hopefully, quoted by NRT.
Tillerson's Gulf visit came as part of concerted efforts to curb Iran's rapidly expanding influence in the region, including boosting the clout of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia in Shiite-majority Iraq, where Iran backs Shia militias fighting in the north - part of a wider regional battle for influence that extends from Syria to Yemen - even as there was scant hope of a breakthrough in attempts to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In further attempts to limit Iranian influence, Tillerson called on European governments to join a U.S.-led sanctions regime against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, saying that countries doing business with the Islamic Republic’s force do so at their own risk. The Revolutionary Guards “foment instability in the region and create destruction in the region,” Tillerson told reporters in Riyadh on Sunday quoted by Bloomberg, after talks with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and other top officials. European countries and companies that do business with the IRGC “really do so at great risk,” he said.
Rex Tillerson is received by Saudi King Salman prior to their meeting in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states are engaged in their own efforts to roll back Shiite-led Iran’s expanding sway in the region, including in Iraq, where Shiite parties have dominated politics since the U.S. toppled the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In a reference to Shiite militias in Iraq, Tillerson said “those fighters need to go home - any foreign fighters need to go home" adding that “we are facing in our region serious challenges in the form of extremism, terrorism as well as attempts to destabilize our countries,” Saudi King Salman said at the event. “These attempts require our full attention.”
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Tilleron's visit takes place just one week after President Donald Trump refused to certify the Iran nuclear deal, leaving its fate to the US Congress, and laid out an aggressive new strategy against Tehran in a bellicose speech. As well as talks with senior Saudi officials in Riyadh including King Salman, Tillerson attended a landmark meeting between Saudi Arabia and Iraq aimed at upgrading strategic ties between the Arab neighbours.
"This event highlights the strength and breadth as well as the great potential of the relations between your countries," Tillerson said at the first meeting of the joint Saudi-Iraqi coordination council in Riyadh.
Following years of tensions with Riyadh, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hailed the meeting as an "important step toward enhancing relations", while King Salman warned of the dangers of "extremism, terrorism, as well as attempts to destabilise our countries." As part of his Saudi visit, Tillerson is also seeking more money for reconstruction in Iraq, after U.S.-backed forces ousted Islamic State from its key strongholds in the country.
Meanwhile, the question of growing Iranian influence - which has been underscored by strong diplomatic relations with Russia and Turkey - has also been at the heart of the diplomatic conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Tillerson headed to Doha later Sunday for talks on defusing the crisis between two key US allies, which however looks unlikely. After initially appearing to support the effort to isolate Qatar, Trump called for mediation and recently predicted a rapid end to the crisis. But before he arrived at Riyadh's King Salman air base on Saturday, Tillerson indicated there had been little progress.
"I do not have a lot of expectations for it being resolved anytime soon," he said in an interview with Bloomberg. "There seems to be a real unwillingness on the part of some of the parties to want to engage."
Aside from the Gulf dispute and Iran, the conflict in Yemen and counter-terrorism will also figure in his talks, the State Department said. On the Gulf crisis, the goal will be to try to persuade the two sides to at least open a dialogue. Simon Henderson, a veteran of the region now at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, said the disputing parties do not want to lose face.
"Tillerson will say: 'Come on kids, grow up and wind down your absurd demands. And let's work on a compromise on your basic differences'," he said.
Kuwait has tried to serve as a mediator, with US support, but the parties have yet to sit down face-to-face.
During his trip, Tillerson will also visit Pakistan, India and Switzerland: in New Delhi Tillerson will try to build what he said in a recent speech could be a 100-year "strategic partnership" with India. Tillerson will stop in Islamabad to try to sooth Pakistani fears about this Indian outreach, but also pressure the government to crack down harder on Islamist militant groups.