Saudis cut ties with Iran following Shia cleric's execution
US urges calm as tensions escalate between rival Middle East powers, raising spectre of sectarian conflict
Saudi Arabia is severing diplomatic relations with Shiite powerhouse Iran amid escalating tensions over the Sunni kingdom's execution of a prominent cleric.
The move came hours after protesters stormed and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran and followed harsh criticism by Iran's top leader of the Saudis' execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said Iranian diplomatic staff had 48 hours to leave his country and all Saudi diplomats in Iran had been recalled.
The mass execution of Sheikh al-Nimr and 46 others - the largest carried out by Saudi Arabia in three and a half decades - laid bare the sectarian divisions gripping the region as demonstrators took to the streets from Bahrain to Pakistan in protest.
It also illustrated the kingdom's new aggressiveness under King Salman. During his reign, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen and staunchly opposed regional Shiite bastion Iran, even as Tehran struck a nuclear deal with world powers.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Saudi Arabia of "divine revenge" over Sheikh al-Nimr's death, while Riyadh accused Tehran of supporting "terrorism", in a war of words that threatened to escalate even as the US and European Union sought to calm the region.
Mr al-Jubeir said the Iranian regime had "a long record of violations of foreign diplomatic missions" dating back to the occupation of the US embassy in 1979, and such incidents were "a flagrant violation of all international agreements".
He said Iran's "hostile policy" was aimed "at destabilising the region's security", accusing Tehran of smuggling weapons and explosives and planting terrorist cells in the kingdom and other countries in the region. He said Saudi Arabia would not allow Iran "to undermine our security".
"The history of Iran is full of negative and hostile interference in Arab countries, always accompanied with subversion, demolition and killing of innocent souls," Mr al-Jubeir said, just before announcing the severing of diplomatic relations.
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 around 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 the Prophet Mohammed, those divisions have only grown as they intertwine with regional politics, 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 has also backed Shiite rebels in Yemen known as Houthis.
Ayatollah Khamenei condemned Sheikh al-Nimr's execution, saying 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.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani condemned Saudi Arabia's execution of Sheikh al-Nimr, but also branded those who attacked the Saudi embassy as "extremists", saying the act was "unjustifiable".
Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had "revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism".
In Tehran, a protest outside the Saudi embassy early on Sunday quickly grew violent as protesters threw stones and petrol bombs at the embassy, setting part of the building on fire. Forty people were arrested and investigators were pursuing other suspects.
Western powers sought to calm the tensions.
In Washington, state department spokesman John Kirby said the Obama administration was aware of the Saudis' severing of ties with Tehran, but stressed: "We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in working through differences and we will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions."
Earlier, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini spoke to Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and urged Tehran to "defuse the tensions and protect the Saudi diplomats".
The disruption in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may have implications for peace efforts in Syria. US secretary of state John Kerry and others spent significant time trying to bring the countries to the negotiating table and they both sat together at talks aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the civil war.
Last month Saudi Arabia convened a meeting of Syrian opposition figures that was designed to create a delegation to attend peace talks with the Syrian government that are supposed to begin this month.
Across the region, demonstrators took to the streets in protest over the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr.
In Bahrain, police fired tear gas and birdshot at demonstrators on Sitra Island, south of the capital Manama, wounding some. In al-Daih, to the west, Shiite protesters chanted against Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud family, as well as against Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifas.
In Beirut, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called Sheikh al-Nimr "the martyr, the holy warrior", while protests erupted from Turkey to India to Pakistan.
The cleric's execution has also threatened to complicate Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Shiite-led Iraqi government, where the Saudi embassy is preparing to formally reopen for the first time in nearly 25 years. On Saturday there were calls for the embassy to be shut down again.
Iran's deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said Saudi Arabia's decision to severe diplomatic relations could not cover up Riyadh's "strategic mistake" in killing the sheikh.
He also accused Saudi Arabia of promoting terrorism and extremism in the Middle East.