* Saudi ambassador says his country can stand up to Iran
* No Yemen ceasefire, but focus shifting to negotiations
* Says politics, not religion at core of dispute with Iran
By Richard Mably and Dominic Evans
LONDON, April 22 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in neighbouring Yemen shows that the Sunni monarchy will stand up to Iran and that Arab states can protect their interests without U.S. leadership, the kingdom’s ambassador to Britain said.
Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf also said that the Saudi-led coalition that has waged four weeks of air strikes against Shi‘ite Houthi fighters in Yemen had met its goals and could be a model for future joint Arab action.
The coalition announced a halt to its aerial campaign on Tuesday, but said it would continue to act as needed against Houthi rebels who control the capital Sanaa and have been fighting to take over the southern port of Aden.
The traditionally cautious kingdom says it launched the air strikes because its regional rival Iran had been training, arming and financing the Houthis, extending Tehran’s influence in the Arab world to Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
Shi‘ite Iran denies supporting the Houthis militarily and has sharply criticised Saudi Arabia’s campaign.
“Iran should not have any say in Yemeni affairs. They are not part of the Arab world,” Prince Mohammed told Reuters in an interview in the Saudi embassy in London. “Their interference has ignited instability, they have created havoc in our part of the world and we’ve seen the events that took place because of their malignant policies.”
“Hence you have the coalition and a new foreign policy for all of us. We want an Arab world free of any outside interference,” the prince said. “We can deal with our own problems.”
The military campaign put an end to “the perception that we were not capable, not able, that we didn’t have the guts to take such difficult decisions,” he said.
Washington has played a limited support role in the four-week campaign, reflecting President Barack Obama’s wariness over U.S. military commitments in the Middle East, although it has accelerated some arms supplies, bolstered intelligence sharing and offered aerial refuelling of Arab coalition jets.
“The Obama doctrine is very clear,” Prince Mohammed said. “This is a friendship which is historical, which will continue, but we have to assert ourselves. Not only Saudi Arabia, but Arab countries. It has to be collective.”
The air strikes, which involved more than 2,400 sorties by Saudi jets and their Arab allies, have failed to drive the Houthis out of Aden. But they have struck weapons depots, disrupted supply lines and weakened the Houthis and their allies in the southern provinces of the country.
Saudi Arabia has demanded the return of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled the country a month ago, and implementation of a U.N. resolution calling for the Houthis to withdraw from Aden and Sanaa.
Prince Mohammed said the campaign was now in a new phase.
“This is not a ceasefire, but an operation that shifts from being a strategic bombing campaign to one that will support, monitor and sustain the new political agreement that is currently being negotiated based on the UN resolution,” he said.
Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, an ally of the Shi‘ite Houthis, welcomed the declared end of air strikes and called for renewed political dialogue to guide the country out of turmoil.
“We hope this will mark the end of the option of force, violence and bloodshed and a start for reviewing accounts and correcting mistakes,” Saleh said.
Although the nearly month-old campaign has been waged by Sunni Arab allies against the Shi‘ite Houthis, the Saudi ambassador said the dispute was about foreign policy differences, not religious sectarianism.
“It is a foreign policy problem. We have a problem with their (Iran‘s) foreign policy,” he said.
“When we deal with Israel, for example, we have a problem with their policy. But we don’t have a problem with their religion. Our dealings with Iran is with their foreign policy.” (Additional reporting Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood)