4 Jan 2016

Saudi Arabia cuts ties with Iran; ...row over execution of Shi'ite Cleric escalates

Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran on Sunday, responding to the storming of its embassy in Tehran in an escalating row between the rival Middle East powers over Riyadh's execution of a Shi'ite Muslim cleric.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh that the envoy of Shi'ite Iran had been asked to quit Saudi Arabia within 48 hours. The kingdom, he said, would not allow the Islamic republic to undermine its security.

Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran early on Sunday and Shi'ite Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted "divine vengeance" for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken opponent of the ruling Al Saudi family.

Jubeir said the attack in Tehran was in line with what he said were earlier Iranian assaults on foreign embassies there and with Iranian policies of destabilising the region by creating "terrorist cells" in Saudi Arabia.
"The kingdom, in light of these realities, announces the cutting of diplomatic relations with Iran and requests the departure of delegates of diplomatic missions of the embassy and consulate and offices related to it within 48 hours. The ambassador has been summoned to notify them," he said.
Speaking on Iranian state television, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in Tehran's first response that by cutting diplomatic ties, Riyadh could not cover up "its major mistake of executing Sheikh Nimr".

Tensions between revolutionary, mainly Shi'ite Iran and Saudi Arabia's conservative Sunni monarchy have run high for years as they backed opposing forces in wars and political conflicts across the Middle East, usually along sectarian lines.

However, Saturday's execution of a cleric whose death Iran had warned would "cost Saudi Arabia dearly", and the storming of the kingdom's Tehran embassy, raised the pitch of the rivalry.

Strong rhetoric from Tehran was matched by Iran's Shi'ite allies across the region, with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanese militia Hezbollah, describing the execution as "a message of blood". Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, called for angry protests.

Demonstrators protesting against the execution of the cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, broke into the embassy building, smashed furniture and started fires before being ejected by police.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani condemned the execution as "inhuman", but also urged the prosecution of "extremist individuals" for attacking the embassy and the Saudi consulate in the northeastern city of Mashhad, state media reported.

Tehran's police chief said an unspecified number of "unruly elements" were arrested for attacking the embassy with petrol bombs and rocks. A prosecutor said 40 people were held.
"The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians," Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying by Iran's state television.
Nimr, the most vocal critic of the dynasty among the Shi'ite minority, had come to be seen as a leader of the sect's younger activists, who had tired of the failure of older, more measured, leaders to achieve equality with Sunnis.

His execution, along with three other Shi'ites and 43 members of Al Qaeda, sparked angry protests in the Qatif region in eastern Saudi Arabia, where demonstrators denounced the ruling Al Saud dynasty, and in the nearby Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.
 

Credit: Reuters

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