TEHRAN , June 19 (UPI) -- Iran and Saudi Arabia are finding the conflict in Iraq a stumbling block in improving their relationship, as each tries to gain regional influence.
After Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged his citizens to help defend Shiite religious sites in Iraq Wednesday, Saudi diplomats advised staying out of Iraq and denied reports Saudi Arabia is financially underwriting a Sunni insurgency.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are influential players in Middle East diplomacy and regard each other suspiciously, although the situation improved after Rouhani's election in 2013 and his claimed interest in cultivating better relationships with neighboring Arab countries.
Iran's Muslim majority is Shiite, as is the Iraqi government, while Saudi Arabia's population is predominately Sunni.
In a televised speech, Rouhani reinforced his support for those defending the Iraqi government against militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militant extremist group that has overtaken much of northern Iraq and is threatening to invade Baghdad. He called for protection of Shiite holy shrines and added Iranians were prepared to travel to Iraq to defend those shrines.
"Iranian nation will protect Iraq's holy shrines & they aren't alone. Iraq's Sunnis, Shias & Kurds all ready to defeat terrorism solidarity," Rouhani later posted on his Twitter account.
Later Wednesday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned against foreign countries' involvement in Iraq, adding Iraqis need to unify their country without "foreign interference or outside agendas." A statement from the Saudi government rejected accusations it supported, financially or diplomatically, the Iraqi insurgents, adding, "Any suggestion to the contrary is a malicious falsehood."