Ebrahim Noroozi / AP Photo

Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties with Iran as tensions escalate

Saudi announcement comes after its embassy in Tehran is stormed by protesters angry over kingdom's execution of cleric

Saudia Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced in a press conference in Riyadh on Sunday that his country will sever all diplomatic ties with Iran. He said Iranian diplomatic personnel had 48 hours to leave his country, and that all Saudi diplomatic personnel in Iran had been recalled home.

The announcement comes as tensions rise between the two countries following Saudi Arabia's execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, which prompted Iranian protesters early Sunday to storm the Saudi embassy in Tehran. 

The news also illustrates Saudi Arabia's new aggressiveness under King Salman. During his reign, the country has led a coalition fighting Shia rebels in Yemen and staunchly opposed regional Shia power Iran, even as Tehran struck a nuclear deal with world powers.

Friction between the two countries rose sharply on Saturday after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of al-Nimr along with 46 other prisoners, including three other Shia dissidents and dozens of Sunni Al-Qaeda fighters. It was the largest mass execution carried out by the kingdom in three and a half decades.

Al-Nimr was a central figure in protests by Saudi Arabia's Shia minority until his arrest in 2012, and his execution drew condemnation from Shias across the Middle East.

Prior to the Saudi announcement on cutting diplomatic ties, Iran's top leader had warned Saudi Arabia of "divine revenge" over the cleric's execution. Riyadh meanwhile accused Tehran of supporting "terrorism." 

The Iranian Foreign Ministry had summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest, while the Saudi Foreign Ministry summoned Iran's envoy to the kingdom to protest that country's criticism of the execution, saying it represented "blatant interference" in its internal affairs.

By early Sunday morning in Tehran, a crowd had gathered outside the Saudi Embassy and chanted anti-Saudi slogans. Some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the embassy, setting off a fire in part of the building, said the country's top police official, Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.

He later said police had removed the protesters from the building and arrested some of them, adding that the situation had been "defused."

A Tehran prosecutor said 40 people were arrested on suspicion of taking part in the embassy attack and investigators were pursuing other suspects, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, while condemning Saudi Arabia's execution of al-Nimr, also branded those who attacked the Saudi Embassy as "extremists."

"It is unjustifiable," he said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had "revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism."

The statement, carried by the official Saudi Press Agency, accused Tehran of "blind sectarianism" and said that "by its defense of terrorist acts" Iran is a "partner in their crimes in the entire region."

Al-Nimr was convicted of “terrorism” charges but denied ever advocating violence.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are locked in a bitter rivalry, and support opposite sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen. Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting "terrorism" in part because it backs Syrian rebel groups, while Riyadh points to Iran's support for the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shia fighters in the region.

The cleric's execution could also complicate Saudi Arabia's relationship with the Shia-led government in Iraq. The Saudi Embassy in Baghdad is preparing to formally reopen for the first time in nearly 25 years. Already on Saturday there were public calls for Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to shut the embassy down again.

Al-Nimr's supporters protested in his hometown of al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, in neighboring Bahrain where police fired tear gas and birdshot, in Lebanon and as far away as northern India.

The last time Saudi Arabia carried out a mass execution on this scale was in 1980, when the kingdom executed 63 people convicted over the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest city. Extremists held the mosque, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba toward which Muslims around the world pray, for two weeks as they demanded the royal family abdicate the throne.

Also Sunday, the BBC reported that one of the 47 executed in Saudi Arabia, Adel al-Dhubaiti, was convicted over a 2004 attack on its journalists in Riyadh. That attack by a gang outside of the home of a suspected Al-Qaeda fighter killed 36-year-old Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers. British reporter Frank Gardner, now the BBC's security correspondent, was seriously wounded in the attack and paralyzed, but survived.

The Associated Press

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