Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations with Iran on Sunday and recalled its diplomats from Tehran as the two regional rivals fought a war of words over the Saudi kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
Nimr, who led anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia’s east, was previously convicted of sedition, disobedience and bearing arms.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir ordered Saudi diplomatic staff be evacuated from Iran, and that all Iranian diplomats leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours, BNO News reported.
Security forces in other Shia-populated areas are also said to be on high alert, while many police stations and security posts have been closed following al-Nimr’s execution in case of repercussions from Saudi Arabia’s Shia community.
Nimr was a central figure in protests by Saudi Arabia’s marginalized Shi’ite minority until his arrest in 2012. Sheikh Nimr did not deny the political charges against him, but maintained he never carried weapons or called for violence.
Last year, 157 people were put to death in Saudi Arabia, compared to 90 in 2014.
Most of the 47 executed on Saturday were Sunnis accused of participating in al-Qaeda attacks. 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.
“The only thing he did was public criticism”, Khamenei said. The Revolutionary Guards said “harsh revenge” would topple “this pro-terrorist, anti-Islamic regime”.
Speaking at a news conference on Sunday, Jubeir accused Iran of trying to destabilize the region by creating “terrorist cells” in Saudi Arabia. Forty-four people were arrested, prosecutors said.
The governments of Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait officially condemned the assault on the Saudi Embassy and consulate in Iran, while the United Arab Emirates summoned the Iranian ambassador in Abu Dhabi to complain about Iran’s “interference in Saudi internal matters”.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been vying for leadership in the Muslim world since Iran’s 1979 revolution, which elevated to power hardline Shiite clerics.
The comments by the Guards mirror those of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also strongly criticised the execution.
On Sunday, police using tear gas and buckshot clashed with protesters throwing petrol bombs in several Shiite suburbs of the capital Manama, witnesses said.
The move followed demonstrations held in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by angry protesters, censuring the Al Saud family for the killing of the top cleric as part of a crackdown on Shias mostly residing in the Eastern Province. He called on leaders in the region to prevent an escalation of sectarian tensions.
Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon urged “calm and restraint in the reactions to the execution” and called on “all leaders of the region to seek to avoid exacerbating sectarian tensions”.
The cleric’s execution has threatened to complicate Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq, where the Saudi Embassy is preparing to formally reopen for the first time in almost 25 years.
The announcement came a day after Iranian protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in outrage over the execution.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs highly appreciated the efforts exerted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in order to consolidate peace and stability at regional and worldwide levels and its high global esteem for its constructive initiatives”.
“This measure taken by the ruling family [of Saudi Arabia] aims at reigniting the region, provoking sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shi’a”, he told Al-Sumaria TV.