TEHRAN — A commander of Iran’s hard-line military group on Tuesday condemned the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran as an “ugly, unjustifiable act,” but the country’s president said it should not distract from Saudi Arabia’s execution of a dissident Shiite cleric.
The commander, Brigadier General Mohsen Kazemeini of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, called the attack on the embassy, as well as one on the Saudi consulate in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, “totally wrong.”
According to political analysts, the criticisms signal that the hard-liners might regret not having done more to keep the protests under control, and that they might have been taken aback by the vehemence of the international response.
On Tuesday, Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Iran, becoming the latest country to side with Saudi Arabia in the widening diplomatic rift, which has put the United States in a bind and has threatened to set back the prospects for peace in Syria. Bahrain and Sudan cut diplomatic ties with Iran Monday, and the United Arab Emirates downgraded relations with Iran, a major trading partner.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who had also denounced the storming of the Saudi buildings, tried on Tuesday to focus on Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s execution.
“To cover up the crime of beheading a religious leader by the country, the Saudi government initiated a strange move and severed its political ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Rouhani said in a meeting with the Danish foreign minister, Kristian Jensen, in Tehran. “Such actions can never muffle that big crime,” the state news agency IRNA quoted Rouhani as saying.
While Kuwait’s decision to downgrade its relationship with Iran strengthened Saudi Arabia’s position, several Sunni Muslim countries — notably Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey — have resisted getting involved in the conflict with Iran, a republic governed by Shiite clerics since the 1979 revolution. They face significant insurgencies of their own, and in the case of Pakistan, a large Shiite population.
Qatar, which shares with Iran access to the world’s largest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, has yet to declare its hand. Oman has also been quiet, sticking to its longstanding position of neutrality between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In Turkey, where senior officials have warned about the impact of the crisis on a “powder-keg” region, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country was ready to work for a peaceful resolution. “Diplomatic channels must be given a chance immediately,” he said at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party in the capital, Ankara.
Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, long frosty, have warmed in recent months. But even in Pakistan, where the alliance with Saudi Arabia has long been much closer, there is a marked reluctance to plunge into the crisis.
On Tuesday, the Pakistani prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, warned Parliament the crisis posed a “grave danger” to the Muslim world. He did not hint at any possible diplomatic moves against Iran, emphasizing instead that Pakistan would work toward “easing tensions.”
Although Pakistan has received substantial Saudi funding to help its flagging economy, the government in Islamabad also faces pressure from its sizable Shiite minority, and it plans to develop a major gas pipeline with Iran to solve its energy crisis.
Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, reaffirmed support for Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, saying “the security of the kingdom is an integral part of Egypt’s security.”
Cairo severed official ties with Tehran in 1989, although there have been sporadic efforts in recent years to revive them.
Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said he did not expect Egypt, Turkey or Pakistan to do much beyond offering words of support for Saudi Arabia.
“The Turks have a problem with the Kurds, the Egyptians have difficulties in Sinai, and the Pakistanis have their own issues,” he said. “They will publicly support the Saudis, but they don’t have the energy or military strength for anything more.”
The Saudi-led war in Yemen — where the Saudis are backing the government as it tries to repel a rebellion by Shiite rebels known as Houthis — has shown Saudi Arabia that it cannot ask for too much, Stephens added.
The extent to which the attacks on the diplomatic buildings were carried out with official approval remains unclear.
While some Iranian newspapers had hinted the Revolutionary Guards had partly organized the events, Kazemeini, the group’s leading commander in Tehran, denied involvement by his forces and those of the Basij, a voluntary paramilitary organization.
He did not specify, however, who was behind the attacks.
Mojtaba Mousavi, editor in chief of a website called Iran’s View, speculated some Basij members — “just kids acting emotionally” — might have been among those who stormed the embassy. But, he added, “This was in no way an organized effort by official groups.” The Basij condemned the attacks.
Iran has had difficulties keeping hard-liners in check in the past. In 2012, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rebuked Basij members after they stormed the British Embassy, leading to a cutting of diplomatic ties with Britain, restored just last year.
As the denouncements of the attacks grew, a new narrative began unfolding in Iran.
An unnamed security official told the semiofficial Fars news agency that “based on initial examinations, we have concluded that the fire started in the embassy before the protesters turned up, and that is suspicious to us.”
Sobhani Nia added that the police and other security forces should have prevented “unruly elements” from entering the embassy.
Gholam Ali Jafarzadeh Iman Abadi, another lawmaker, also blamed the police for lax security at the embassy. “We think that law enforcement should be blamed for its failure to control public anger,” Icana quoted him as saying.
On Tuesday, Iranian state television again showed video footage of an underground missile base, during a visit by the chairman of parliament, Ali Larijani.
They showed what seemed to be long-range missiles on nine trucks in an underground complex. Larijani paid his respects at the coffin of an unknown soldier under a banner showing a quote from Iran’s supreme leader, saying, “Israel will not be around in 25 years.”
Khamenei said in September that Israel, Iran’s main enemy, would not exist in 25 years because of a decline in its birthrate.