Iranian-Saudi tensions near boiling point over outspoken cleric's execution

Iranian-Saudi tensions near boiling point over outspoken cleric's execution
Iran's Supreme Leader said Saudi Arabia would face "divine revenge" over its execution of prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, hours after Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran were firebombed by protesters.
5 min read
03 January, 2016
Iranian protesters gathered at Riyadh's embassy in Tehran after Nimr's execution [Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty]

Saudi Arabia's New Year Day execution of 47 prisoners convicted of "terrorism" charges, including top Shia cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr but also dozens of Sunni extremists, has caused fury felt from Iran to Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

The Saudi Arabian cleric had spent more than a decade studying theology in Iran.

On Sunday, Iran's supreme leader said that Saudi Arabia will face "divine revenge" for executing Nimr, whose death sparked protests in which the kingdom's embassy in Tehran was firebombed later on Saturday.

An Iranian official earlier said 40 people were arrested after Saudi Arabia's embassy was attacked and set on fire following outrage at the execution.

Top officials in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria also condemned the execution of Nimr, a force behind anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia in 2011 in the east of the country.

The 56-year-old cleric was put to death along with 46 activists and extremists who the Saudi interior ministry said had been involved in al-Qaeda killings.

Some were beheaded, and others were shot by firing squad, said the ministry.

While Shia leaders hit out at the executions the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain defended their Sunni ally, saying they were necessary to confront extremism.

Saudi Arabia in turn accused Iran of sponsoring terror and undermining regional stability.

Khamenei called the killing of Nimr "a political mistake by the Saudi government" which would "haunt its politicians". His comments came ahead of protests planned to start in Tehran at 3:00 pm local time on Sunday.

"The unjustly spilt blood of this martyr will have quick consequences," Khamenei told clerics in the Iranian capital. "God will not forgive."

"This scholar neither encouraged people into armed action nor secretly conspired for plots but the only thing he did was utter public criticism rising from his religious zeal," he said of Nimr.

The unjustly spilt blood of this martyr will have quick consequences

-Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

The executions prompted protests in at least one city in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, where Shia Muslims, the majority in the area, complain of marginalisation, as well as in Iraq and Bahrain.

In Tehran the Saudi embassy was ransacked after protesters threw petrol bombs and stormed the building. The kingdom's consulate in Mashhad, Iran's second biggest city, was also set on fire.

Saudi foreign ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki called Iran's reaction "irresponsible", and summoned Tehran's envoy in protest.

"The fire has destroyed the interior of the embassy," an eyewitness told AFP.

Fuelling sectarian tensions

Websites had carried pictures of protesters clutching the Saudi flag, which had been pulled down and members of the crowd were able to climb onto the roof of the embassy before they were made to leave.

The incidents came after the United States and European Union expressed alarm over the executions, with Washington warning Riyadh "risked "exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced".

Saudi Arabia's interior ministry said the executed men were convicted of adopting the radical "takfiri" ideology, joining "terrorist organisations" and implementing various "criminal plots".

An official published list included Sunnis convicted of involvement in al-Qaeda attacks that killed dozens - Saudis and foreigners - in 2003 and 2004.

Those executed were Saudis, except for an Egyptian and a Chadian

Among them was Fares al-Shuwail, described by Saudi media as al-Qaeda's top religious leader in the kingdom.

Those executed were Saudis, except for an Egyptian and a Chadian.

Elsewhere in the region, other Shia countries and groups also reacted angrily.

In Saudi ally Bahrain, police used tear gas to disperse dozens of youths from the majority Shia population protesting against the executions.

In Iraq, hundreds demonstrated in the holy Shia city of Karbala and prominent Shia lawmaker Khalaf Abdelsamad urged the closure of Riyadh's newly-reopened embassy in Baghdad and the expulsion of its ambassador.

Hizballah reacts

Lebanon's Shia movement Hizballah, an ally of Tehran, said Saudi Arabia's rulers were "global criminals" and it denounced Nimr's execution as a "heinous crime".

"The assassination of Sheikh al-Nimr based on invalid arguments, corrupt rulings and empty allegations... contradicts justice," Hizballah said in a statement issued by its media office.

The party said that "the real reason behind Saudi Arabia's [decision] to execute Sheikh Nimr was that he demanded the... rights of an oppressed people" by a corrupt group, refferring to Saudi Arabia's Shia minority.

In Yemen, where the kingdom is leading a coalition against Shia rebels, the religious scholars' association controlled by them condemned the execution.

Nimr's brother, Mohammed, said he had hoped that "wisdom and a political solution" would prevail to spare the cleric's life.

Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia since King Salman ascended the throne a year ago - 153 people put to death in 2015, nearly twice as many as in 2014.

Rights watchdogs have repeatedly raised concern about the fairness of trials in the kingdom, where murder, drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy are all punishable by death.

Nimr was arrested in 2012, three years after calling for Eastern Province's Shia-populated Qatif and Al-Ihsaa governorates to be separated from Saudi Arabia and united with Bahrain.

The interior ministry had described him at the time of his arrest as an "instigator of sedition".

A video on YouTube in 2012 showed Nimr making a speech celebrating the death of then-interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz.

With agencies