News Middle East

Thursday 27 October 2016

Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran after protests of execution of top cleric

Published 03/01/2016 | 20:54

Nimr al-Nimr. Photo: Reuters
Nimr al-Nimr. Photo: Reuters

Saudi Arabia has announced it is severing diplomatic ties with Iran amid mounting tensions over the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric.

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Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that Iranian diplomatic personnel had 48 hours to leave the country and all Saudi diplomatic personnel in Iran were being recalled home.

Iranian officials harshly condemned the execution, with Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying that Saudi Arabia would face "divine retribution".

Protesters set fire to the kingdom's embassy in Tehran and demonstrators took to the streets from Bahrain to Pakistan after the mass execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others.

It was the largest execution carried out by Saudi Arabia in three and a half decades and illustrates the kingdom's new aggressiveness under King Salman.

Under his reign, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen and staunchly opposed regional Shiite power Iran, even as Tehran struck a nuclear deal with world powers.

Riyadh has accused Tehran of supporting terrorism in a war of words that threatened to escalate even as the US and the European Union sought to calm the region.

Sheikh al-Nimr was a central figure in Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority until his arrest in 2012. He was convicted of terrorism charges but denied advocating violence.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia put Sheikh al-Nimr and three other Shiite dissidents to death, along with a number of al Qaida militants. Sheikh al-Nimr's execution drew protests from Shiites across the world, who backed his call for reform and wider political freedom for their sect.

While the split between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the early days of Islam and disagreements over the successor to Prophet Mohammed, those divisions have only grown as they intertwine with regional politics today, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia vying to be the Middle East's top power.

Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism in part because it backs Syrian rebel groups fighting to oust its embattled ally, President Bashar Assad. Riyadh points to Iran's backing of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups in the region as a sign of its support for terrorism. Iran also has backed Shiite rebels in Yemen known as Houthis.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, condemned Sheikh al-Nimr's execution, saying on Sunday the cleric "neither invited people to take up arms nor hatched covert plots. The only thing he did was public criticism."

Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard said Saudi Arabia's "medieval act of savagery" would lead to the "downfall" of the country's monarchy.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had "revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism".


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