Iranian protesters stormed Saudi missions in Tehran and Mashad on Saturday night, hours after Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shi’ite Muslim cleric, and 46 other prisoners.
The execution of the 56-year-old Nimr, a strong critic of the Sunni ruling family, sparked anger in Shiite-majority Bahrain, Iran and Iraq, where protesters demonstrated in the holy Shiite city of Karbala.
Despite claims from his western supporters who petitioned the Saudi government to spare his life, Sheikh Nimr was no democrat, nor was he liberal.
The simultaneous execution of 47 people – 45 Saudis, one Egyptian and a man from Chad – was the biggest mass execution for security offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979.
In Tehran meanwhile, angry crowds hurled Molotov cocktails and stormed the Saudi embassy in protest at Nimr’s execution before being cleared by police, ISNA news agency reported.
The U.S. State Department said Nimr’s execution “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced”.
Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 terrorists including a prominent Iranian cleric has touched sensitive nerves in the Middle East. Regional stability is being threatened over the Sunni kingdom’s move as furious Shia inclined Iran – not the nation to bow under pressure – has reacted strongly.
“While the Saudi government supports extremists and terrorist groups, it cracks down on and executes its dissidents”, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said.
Iran’s foreign ministry had said on Monday it was willing to talk to Saudi Arabia after months of escalating tensions, but any chance of a rapprochement appeared to be derailed on Saturday as officials and clerics lined up to denounce the kingdom.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn said it was “profoundly wrong” to execute al-Nimr, while Lib Dem leader Tim Farron described capital punishment as “abhorrent”. Iran said it has summoned the Saudi charge daffaires in Tehran.
Most of those executed were detained after a series of attacks by al Qaeda between 2003 and 2006 in which hundreds of people were killed.
Iran’s parliament speaker warned that the controversial execution would prompt “a maelstrom” in Saudi Arabia. Saudi state television also reported the executions.
Saudi Arabia’s “justice system is independent, just and transparent and does not… operate discreetly as the is case in Iran”, the statement added. Shiites make up 10- to 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are locked in a bitter rivalry, and support opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen.
The country’s Interior Ministry said legal actions will be taken against anyone attempting to use the executions to heighten sectarian tensions or to incite violence.