MIDDLE EAST

Saudi Arabia cuts ties with Iran in crisis over cleric's execution; other nations follow suit

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran on Sunday, one day after the execution of an important Shiite Muslim cleric sparked a war of words between the two regional rivals.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir, in a televised address on state television, declared the kingdom’s “dissolution of relations with Iran,” adding that the Iranian government had 48 hours to shut down its offices and remove all of its diplomats from the country.

On Monday, in a reflection of Saudi Arabia's influence in the region, both Bahrain and Sudan announced that they, too, were severing diplomatic ties to Iran, while the United Arab Emirates said it would downgrade its relationship to the level of a charge d'affaires.

The UAE said its officials would from now on focus entirely on the business relationships between the two countries.

Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya reported that members of the Saudi diplomatic mission in Iran landed in Dubai late Sunday after being recalled from their posts.

The break came as the two countries — which have grappled for regional leadership for years — engaged in increasingly angry rhetoric over the Saudi execution of Shiite cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr.

Saudi Arabia announced Al-Nimr’s death Saturday as part of a mass execution of 47 people on terrorism-related charges — the country’s largest such execution since 1980. Most of those executed had been implicated in Al Qaeda attacks against the Saudi government.

Al-Nimr was executed along with three other Shiite dissidents from Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-dominated eastern Qatif region.

The execution enraged Iranians and provoked a stern response from Iran’s government.

Saudi Arabia, in turn, was angered when protesters stormed its embassy in Tehran, hurling Molotov cocktails, on Saturday night and early Sunday. Eventually, security forces pushed them back and arrested about 40 people, said Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaqari.

The Saudi Consulate in the city of Mashhad was also attacked.

Jubeir blamed Iran for what he described as “a blatant violation of international charters” because its leaders had engaged in “rhetoric that incited the attacks.”

“Iran has a long record in attacking foreign diplomatic missions,” said Jubeir, in an apparent reference to the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian students.

Over the last two days, relations between the two countries deteriorated, with opposing leaders hurling insults at one another.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said in a religious speech Sunday that “divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians.” He described Al-Nimr as an “innocent martyr,” a scholar whose only crime was “open criticism” of the Saudi government.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, according to the Associated Press, described the execution as a “medieval act of savagery” and compared the Saudi government to Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia said the prisoners executed Saturday were put to death either by beheading with a sword or by firing squad; it did not specify which method was used with each individual.

It denounced Iran as a “blindly sectarian” supporter of terrorism, adding that Iran has executed hundreds of its own people “without clear legal proof,” according to a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

Protesters gathered in Tehran again Sunday to protest the execution, despite a heavy police presence and condemnation by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who criticized the previous day's protests for damaging the nation’s reputation.

He called on Iranian officials to “guarantee the safety and security of Saudi Arabian diplomats” in the country.

Although Sunday’s protest was less violent, hundreds came to denounce the execution, shouting slogans demanding the closure of the “Wahhabi embassy,” a reference to the harsh form of Sunni Islam adopted by Saudi rulers.

Some carried posters depicting Saudi King Salman, bearing the ominous caption, “If we do not stop you, God will.”

Others honored Al-Nimr, saying his “death with dignity [was] better than life with humiliation.”

“The Sunni Wahhabi regime is fighting against us and we should react accordingly,” said Ali Hosseinipour, a 31-year-old graduate student who attended the protest.

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FOR THE RECORD

10:49 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled Ali Hosseinipour's name as Ali Hossianipour.

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”I am here to show that I am not like those who stormed into the embassy last night; we are peaceful protesters, but we do not forgive the Saudi regime for the atrocity they did against Sheik Nimr,” said Hossian Savari, a student and member of the Basij, Iran’s paramilitary volunteer organization.

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Sunday’s protest lasted for nearly two hours. Eventually, security forces urged demonstrators to leave the scene and head toward Palestine Square, where a less-violent protest called for by the government was staged.

Authorities, meanwhile, renamed the street on which the Saudi Embassy stands in honor of “Martyr Nimr Baqir Nimr.” 

Regional reactions to the execution mirrored regional loyalties, which have been sharpened in the last few years by the conflict in Syria.

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad has been engaged in a civil war against armed opposition rebels. Iran supports Assad, who is an Alawite, a Shiite offshoot sect. Saudi Arabia is a major benefactor to some of the rebels, whose ranks are dominated by Sunnis.

Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, delivered a broadside against Saudi Arabia, saying in a televised speech Sunday that Al-Nimr's execution “shows the real oppressive, terrorist, and criminal face of the Saudi regime.”

The governments of Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Yemen and Kuwait officially condemned the assault on the Saudi Embassy in Iran, while the United Arab Emirates summoned the Iranian ambassador in Abu Dhabi to complain about Iran’s “interference in Saudi internal matters.”

Bahrain also announced it would cut diplomatic ties with Iran, calling on all Bahrainis in Iran to leave the country within 48 hours as it planned to close its diplomatic missions there, the Associated Press reported. It blamed the decision on what it called the "cowardly" attack on Saudi Arabia's diplomatic mission, as well as allegations that Iran smuggles weapons and explosives into Bahrain.

Bahrain frequently accuses Iran of being behind the long-running, low-level insurgency in the country since its majority Shiite population began protests in 2011 against Bahrain's Sunni rulers.

Meanwhile, Saudi and Emirati television networks weighed in, with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya network broadcasting a report highlighting Iranian courts’ death verdicts against 27 Sunni scholars.

The Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia denounced Iran’s execution record, which it estimated to be at least 753 cases since the relatively moderate Rouhani took power in 2013.

Zeid Raad Hussein, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, described the mass execution in Saudi Arabia “as a very disturbing development indeed, particularly as some of those sentenced to death were accused of nonviolent crimes,” according to a news release on the U.N.’s website Sunday.

He added that he was “extremely concerned about the recent sharp increase in the number of executions in Saudi Arabia, with at least 157 people put to death in 2015, compared to 90 executed in 2014, and lower numbers in previous years.”

He urged the Saudi government to “impose a moratorium on all executions and to work with the U.N. and other partners on alternative strategies to combat terrorism.”

The kingdom’s election to chair a key panel of the U.N. Human Rights Council last summer caused an uproar from activists around the globe.

Shiite Muslims make up 10% to 15% of the Saudi population, found mostly in its oil-rich Eastern province. They have long sought a greater role in the country’s governance, and complain of systematic discrimination.

Al-Nimr was a frequent critic of the Saudi government who, according to a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable, said in a meeting with U.S. officials in Saudi Arabia that he would “side with the people” in a conflict, “never with the government.”

In the same meeting, he added that he would not endorse violence — a position that remained largely unchanged throughout his confrontations with the Saudi government.

He also insisted he had no connections with Tehran, despite accusations to the contrary by Saudi authorities.

In 2012, Al-Nimr was shot multiple times and arrested by police, triggering a wave of protests in Qatif that left three Shiites dead. Al-Nimr's nephew was also arrested and sentenced to death, although that punishment has yet to be carried out.

He was handed a “discretionary” death sentence in October 2014. Observers, however, did not expect the verdict to be carried out; in the past, Saudi rulers have often shown leniency toward political prisoners.

However, the new Saudi king, Salman, who was crowned last January after the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah, has taken a more heavy-handed approach, according to F. Gregory Gause, professor at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.

“Nimr was arrested under the previous ruler, who followed the precedent of rulers before him and was likely to commute death sentences in political cases,” said Gause in a phone interview Sunday.

“The new king is not following that same pattern, that’s for sure,” he added.

Gause said that Nimr’s execution, along with those of accused Al Qaeda members, who are Sunni, was aimed at mollifying the kingdom’s Sunni critics by saying, “We’re not just picking on you.”

Others agreed.

“For the internal Saudi audience, the executions bore a message that there is no differentiation between terrorists, and that terrorism has no religion nor creed,” said Kassab Otaiby, a Saudi commentator interviewed via social media Saturday.

Otaiby also lauded the timing of the execution, saying it came to proclaim this was a purely Saudi decision that reflected Saudi sovereignty.

However, professor Toby Jones, professor of Middle Eastern history at Rutgers University, said the execution reflected Saudi Arabia’s turbulent domestic political scene.

“The government is facing two problems, both of which are costly,” explained Jones in a phone interview Sunday. A budget shortfall due to falling oil prices has forced the government to impose austerity measures and trim social welfare, and Saudi Arabia has walked away from a cease-fire with Houthi rebels amid heavy losses in the war in Yemen.

“The only ideological glue that allows the Saudis to pursue both an austerity program and the war on Yemen is to kill a prominent Shiite,” concluded Jones.

Special correspondents Bulos reported from Dubai and Mostaghim from Tehran, respectively. Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:22 a.m.: This article has been updated with staff reporting on actions by Bahrain, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates.

5:05 a.m.: This is article has been updated with Sudan's announcement that it is cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran.

Jan 4, 3:59 a.m. This is article has been updated with Bahrain's announcement that it is cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran.

8:12 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional background, analysis and quotes from academic experts and others.

12:37 p.m.: This article has been updated the announcement that Saudi Arabia is cutting off diplocatic relations with Iran.

This article was originally published on Jan. 3 at 11:43 a.m.

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