The leader of Iran has warned Saudi Arabia of “divine vengeance” following its execution of a prominent Shia cleric and 46 others as protests erupted across the Middle East.
Washington called on the region’s two primary powers to avoid heightening tensions as demonstrators protesting against the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr broke into the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran and set it ablaze.
The incident was condemned by the Iranian authorities but an escalating war of words between Tehran and Riyadh underlined how the mass executions had opened a rancorous new chapter in the ongoing struggle between Islam’s Shia and Sunni sects.
On Sunday night, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic ties with Iran. The Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said that all Iranian diplomats must leave the kingdom within 48 hours, and the Dubai-based al-Arabiya television channel reported that Saudi Arabia had evacuated its diplomats from Tehran.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Shia-dominated Iran, lambasted Saudi Arabia for a second day, describing Sheikh Nimr as an “oppressed martyr” and predicted that “divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians”.
In Riyadh, the foreign ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran was supporting terrorism.
The recriminations also spread beyond the two lead antagonists in the Muslim world’s Shia-Sunni split.
In Lebanon, the leader of Hezbollah, which has been fighting on the side of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni insurgents in the country’s civil war, said the death of Sheikh Nimr was a “message of blood”.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Riyadh of seeking to spread sectarianism. Referring to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, the Shia group’s leader said: “Al-Saud wants Sunni-Shia strife. They are the ones who ignited it, and are doing so in every part of the world.”
As well as in Tehran, crowds of protesters gathered outside the Saudi embassy in the Lebanese capital of Beirut while demonstrations took place in Bahrain, Turkey, Pakistan and northern India.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
10 examples of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
In Sunni-ruled Bahrain, police fired birdshot and used water cannon to disperse demonstrators who had been chanting the name of Sheikh Nimr as “our martyr”. The cleric was an outspoken critic of his country’s Sunni monarchy and was widely seen as a leader of younger Shia activists both in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Bahrain.
Sheikh Nimr’s execution also sparked protests in his native Qatif region in eastern Saudi Arabia, where family members prepared for three days of mourning in the town of al-Awamiyah. The sheikh’s brother said he had been told he would not be receiving his body because the cleric had already been buried in an unnamed cemetery.
The execution is likely to complicate Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Shia-led government in neighbouring Iraq, where the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is facing calls to close the Saudi diplomatic mission down.
The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani went out of his way in his condemnation of Sheikh Nimr’s execution to also describe as “unjustifiable” the actions of 40 people who broke into the Saudi embassy in Tehran in the early hours of Sunday. The mob broke furniture, started fires and threw documents from the roof.
In Washington, the State Department called on the Iranian government to protect the Saudi embassy and called on both countries to refrain from “any actions that could further heighten tensions”.
But as both countries continued to trade accusations, with Riyadh accusing Iran of “blatant interference” in its internal affairs, there was little prospect of either side stepping down. In Tehran, the sign on the street where the Saudi embassy is was changed to “Sheikh Nimr St”, and the Supreme Leader’s website carried a picture of a Saudi executioner next to the Isis killer “Jihadi John” with the caption “Any differences?”