With mass protests brimming in Iran over the execution of a high-profile Shia Muslim cleric, Saudi Arabia is cutting all diplomatic ties with its longtime rival. According to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, all Iranian diplomats are to vacate the country within 48 hours. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia is also retrieving its own diplomats from Tehran.
Current protests in Iran are in response to the Saturday execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was convicted and murdered, along with 46 others, for allegedly having been party to “al-Qaeda-linked terror attacks over the last decade,” according to the BBC.
Protestors in Tehran stormed the Saudi embassy Saturday night in response to the cleric’s execution, even going so far as to set the building on fire before local authorities pushed them back. Tensions between the two countries continue to mount, though so far no diplomats have been hurt or killed.
Jubeir stated in response to the protests and the storming of the embassy that Saudi Arabia was not about to allow Iran the means for compromising its security, adding a firm belief that the country had “distributed weapons and planted terrorist cells in the region.”
“Iran’s history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues, and it is always accompanied by destruction,” he said.
U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby stated, “We will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions. We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential.”
Previously, however, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “divine revenge” against Saudi Arabia for the Sheikh Nimr’s execution, whom he called a peaceful “martyr.”
Iran isn’t alone in being angry with the Sunni Muslim kingdom, either. Shia Muslims everywhere, especially across the Middle East, share in the outrage. Iraq’s highest Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani referred to Sheikh Nimr’s execution as “unjust aggression.” Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shia Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, accused the Saudi ruling family of attempting to start a Shia-Sunni worldwide civil war in a public statement. Nasrallah said the cleric’s blood would “plague the Al Saud [family] until the Day of Resurrection,” which was followed by “Death to the Al Saud!” cries from the audience.
Ties between the two countries have long been strained, further complicated by the two backing opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts. Saudi Arabia has not been a fan of Iran’s nuclear program, either. Beef between the two nations even goes as far back as 1987, when 275 Iranians were killed at the Hajj pilgrimage. Another incident at the same pilgrimage in 2015 resulted in the death of 464 more Iranians.
But who was Sheikh Nimr?
At the time of his execution, he was quinquagenarian known for being a dedicated critic of Saudi Arabia’s royal family. Over the last 10 years, he’d been arrested numerous times and alleged being beaten and detained by Saudi secret police, including once in 2012 for participation in protests following the Arab Spring. Wikileaks also showed that he had met with U.S. officials back in 2008 in order to separate himself from those mouthing off pro-Iranian, anti-American statements. He was loved by many Saudi Shia youth, as well.
As a result of Sheikh Nimr’s execution, protests have also sprouted up in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. There, Shia Muslims claim they are marginalized, just as they do in Iraq and many other countries.
Featured image via BBC video screen capture.