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Mon 4 Jan 2016 08:52 AM

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Saudi Arabia cuts ties with Iran, envoy ordered to leave within 48 hours

Tehran's Supreme Leader warns of "divine vengeance" over Riyadh's execution of a Shi'ite Muslim cleric

Saudi Arabia cuts ties with Iran, envoy ordered to leave within 48 hours
(Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia
cut ties with Iran on Sunday, responding to the storming of its embassy in
Tehran in an escalating row between the rival Middle East powers over Riyadh's
execution of a Shi'ite Muslim cleric.

Foreign
Minister Adel Al Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh that the envoy of
Shi'ite Iran had been asked to quit Saudi Arabia within 48 hours. The kingdom,
he said, would not allow the Islamic republic to undermine its security.

Iranian
protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran early on Sunday and Shi'ite
Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted "divine
vengeance" for the execution of Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr, an outspoken opponent
of the ruling Al Saudi family.

Jubeir said the
attack in Tehran was in line with what he said were earlier Iranian assaults on
foreign embassies there and with Iranian policies of destabilising the region
by creating "terrorist cells" in Saudi Arabia.

"The
kingdom, in light of these realities, announces the cutting of diplomatic
relations with Iran and requests the departure of delegates of diplomatic
missions of the embassy and consulate and offices related to it within 48
hours. The ambassador has been summoned to notify them," he said.

Speaking on
Iranian state television, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said
in Tehran's first response that by cutting diplomatic ties, Riyadh could not
cover up "its major mistake of executing Sheikh Nimr".

The United
States, Saudi Arabia's biggest backer in the West, responded by encouraging
diplomatic engagement and calling for leaders in the region to take
"affirmative steps" to reduce tensions.

"We
believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in
working through differences and we will continue to urge leaders across the
region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions," an official of
President Barack Obama's administration said.

Tensions
between revolutionary, mainly Shi'ite Iran and Saudi Arabia's conservative
Sunni monarchy have run high for years as they backed opposing forces in wars
and political conflicts across the Middle East, usually along sectarian lines.

However,
Saturday's execution of a cleric whose death Iran had warned would "cost
Saudi Arabia dearly", and the storming of the kingdom's Tehran embassy,
raised the pitch of the rivalry.

Strong rhetoric
from Tehran was matched by Iran's Shi'ite allies across the region, with Sayyed
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanese militia Hezbollah, describing the
execution as "a message of blood". Moqtada Al Sadr, an Iraqi Shi'ite
cleric, called for angry protests.

Demonstrators
protesting against the execution of the cleric, Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr, broke into
the embassy building, smashed furniture and started fires before being ejected
by police.

Iran's
President Hassan Rouhani condemned the execution as "inhuman", but
also urged the prosecution of "extremist individuals" for attacking
the embassy and the Saudi consulate in the northeastern city of Mashhad, state
media reported.

Tehran's police
chief said an unspecified number of "unruly elements" were arrested
for attacking the embassy with petrol bombs and rocks. A prosecutor said 40
people were held.

"The
unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its
effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians," Iran's Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying by Iran's state television.

Nimr, the most
vocal critic of the dynasty among the Shi'ite minority, had come to be seen as
a leader of the sect's younger activists, who had tired of the failure of
older, more measured, leaders to achieve equality with Sunnis.

His execution,
along with three other Shi'ites and 43 members of Al Qaeda, sparked angry
protests in the Qatif region in eastern Saudi Arabia, where demonstrators
denounced the ruling Al Saud dynasty, and in the nearby Gulf kingdom of
Bahrain.

Relatives of
Nimr, reached by telephone, said authorities had informed them that the body
had been buried "in a cemetery of Muslims" and would not be handed
over to the family.

Although most
of the 47 men killed in the kingdom's biggest mass execution for decades were
Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago, it was Nimr
and three other Shi'ites, all accused of involvement in shooting police, who
attracted most attention in the region and beyond.

Khamenei's
website carried a picture of a Saudi executioner next to notorious ISIL executioner
'Jihadi John', with the caption "Any differences?". The Revolutionary
Guards said "harsh revenge" would topple "this pro-terrorist,
anti-Islamic regime".

Saudi Arabia on
Saturday summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest what it described as hostile
remarks emerging from Tehran. On Sunday, Riyadh's Gulf allies the United Arab
Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain also summoned Tehran's envoys to their countries
to lodge complaints.

In Iraq, whose
Shi'ite-led government is close to Iran, religious and political figures
demanded that ties with Riyadh be severed, calling into question Saudi attempts
to forge a regional alliance against ISIL, which controls swaths of Iraq and
Syria.

Iraq's top
Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani described the executions as an
"unjust aggression". The opinion of Sistani, based in the Shi'ite
holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad, carries weight with millions of Shi'ites
in Iraq and across the region, including in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the
focus on Nimr, the executions seemed mostly aimed at discouraging jihadism in
Saudi Arabia, where dozens have died in the past year in attacks by Sunni
militants.

But Saudi
Arabia's Western allies, many of whom supply it with arms, are growing
concerned about its new assertiveness.

The US State
Department said Nimr's execution "risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at
a time when they urgently need to be reduced", a sentiment echoed by EU
foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. The State Department also urged Saudi
Arabia to respect and protect human rights.

France said on
Sunday it deeply deplored the mass execution and said it reiterated its
opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances.

In Istanbul,
hundreds of protesters, some carrying pictures of Nimr and chanting "Saudi
Arabia will pay the price", gathered outside its consulate on Sunday as
riot police stood guard.

The four
Shi'ites had been convicted of involvement in shootings and petrol bomb attacks
that killed several police during anti-government protests from 2011-13. More
than 20 Shi'ites were shot dead by the authorities in those protests.

Family members
of the executed Shi'ites have denied they were involved in attacks and said
they were only peaceful protesters against sectarian discrimination.

Human rights
groups say the kingdom's judicial process is unfair, pointing to accusations
that confessions have been secured under torture and that defendants in court
have been denied access to lawyers. Riyadh denies torture and says its
judiciary is independent.

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