Long-standing tensions between Riyadh and Tehran flared over the weekend after Saudi authorities announced they had executed 47 people, including Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family. That news was greeted with anger in Shia-majority Iran, where protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. In response, Saudi authorities announced they were cutting off diplomatic ties with Iran.
“We’re aware that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has ordered the closure of Iranian diplomatic missions in the Kingdom,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Sunday. “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.”
Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the United States, and the Sunni- majority country has long seen Iran as an archrival. Both are involved in an effective proxy war in Yemen and have been expected to play important roles in efforts to resolve the civil war in Syria, where they are supporting different factions. Both also are battling the Islamic State terrorist group, although the Saudis are more directly doing so alongside the United States.
But the new spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran could damage the Obama administration’s fragile peace efforts, especially in Syria, while slowing the fight against the Islamic State. It also could spur more unrest in countries such as Bahrain, where sectarian tensions already run high. There were reports Sunday that other Gulf Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, had summoned Iranian representatives to lodge protests over the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions, moves that may have come at the request of Riyadh, which escalated its rhetoric as the weekend wore on.
“We have decided to sever our relations with a terror-sponsor country and we urge all countries to consider seriously whether they could tolerate sharing relations with a terror-sponsor country,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Sunday, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
In addition, in a lengthy statement distributed to reporters, a Saudi Foreign Ministry source blasted Iran, accusing it of hypocrisy as well as terrorism.
“The Iranian regime is not ashamed to rant about human rights issues, while it executed hundreds of Iranians without a clear legal basis last year,” the statement cites the unnamed source as saying. “The [Saudi] Kingdom’s judiciary is independent, fair, and transparent, and it does not deal with evilness, meanness and sedition or in secrecy, as is the case for the regime of Iran.”
The Saudi-Iran fury also comes at a sensitive time for the Iran nuclear deal, which is expected to be officially declared “implemented” sometime this month. Although the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, it and other world powers pursued the nuclear agreement despite Saudi chagrin.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute Nimr may have sent a message to Tehran, but many of the other 46 people put to death were alleged terrorists, suggesting the kingdom also was trying to send a signal that it remains a key player in the battle against Islamist jihadists.
“The overwhelming majority of those who were executed were Sunni militants who were accused of some of the most serious terrorism crimes, including the killing of some expatriates,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst with JTG Inc. “The primary message appears to be aimed at Saudi Arabia’s own militants, regardless of their sect; the targeting of Saudi civilians and security or military personnel will not be tolerated.”
The news of the executions drew a carefully worded response from the United States, which is generally very cautious about how it publicly discusses Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich ally that follows a very strict form of Islamic law that allows for beheadings, among other punishments.
“We have previously expressed our concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia and have frequently raised these concerns at high levels of the Saudi government,” the State Department said in a statement Saturday. “We are particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”