Simmering tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are threatening to erupt into a full-blown diplomatic showdown after Saudi authorities executed at least four Iranians for drug trafficking.
In the latest in a series of spats between the two Persian Gulf neighbours, at loggerheads over Iran’s suspect nuclear programme, Tehran publicly accused Riyadh of “inhumane actions” in carrying out the executions and warned of “repercussions”.
The official Iranian news agency, IRNA, reported that the Saudi charge de affaires in Tehran was summoned to Iran’s foreign ministry and asked for an explanation.
Ali Reza Enayati, a foreign ministry official responsible for Persian Gulf affairs, said Saudi Arabia had breached universal human rights standards and its international treaty obligations by denying the condemned citizens access to Iranian consular staff. In a jibe calculated to wound the leadership in Riyadh, he described its behaviour as “contrary to Islamic standards” and promised Iran’s grievances would be raised in forthcoming international gatherings.
News of the executions emerged weeks after Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said he had been assured by his Saudi counterpart, Saud al-Faisal, that they had been stopped.
While the number of confirmed executions stands at four, the semi-official Iranian news agency, Mehr, citing Saudi sources, reported that at least 18 had been put to death. A foreign ministry official in Tehran recently said 38 Iranians were currently detained in Saudi Arabia accused of drug trafficking.
With one of the world’s highest rates of illegal drug use, particularly opium, it is not unknown for Iranian pilgrims to carry drugs for personal use while travelling to Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca. Iranian media say many have been arrested after Saudi law enforcement officers found them to be possessing narcotics.
Officials in Iran have previously warned pilgrims that they could be hanged or beheaded if found carrying just one gram of illicit drugs in Saudi Arabia. They have advised users not to travel to the Haj before they have cured their addiction.
Iran’s protests are ironic given that human rights groups say it carries out more executions than any other country apart from China. Death sentences for a range of offences, including drug trafficking, are frequently carried out in public.
The row further sharpens Tehran’s differences with the ruling Saudi monarchy. Last October, US officials disclosed what they said was an Iranian regime-sponsored plan to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. The ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, had previously been quoted in WikiLeaks, the leaked trove of American diplomatic cables, as passing on a message from the monarch, King Abdullah, to General David Patraeus, now head of the CIA, in 2008 to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran’s nuclear installations.