|Protesters demanding freedom for jailed Shiite cleric Nim al-Nimr|
shortly before his execution in Saudi Arabia.
BAGHDAD — Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday and gave all Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom, as escalating tensions over the execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia marked a new low in relations between the two Middle Eastern powers.
The surprise move, announced in a televised news conference by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, followed harsh criticism by Iranian leaders of the Saudis’ execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by protesters in response.
Mr. Jubeir said that the kingdom would not allow Iran to undermine its security.
The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saturday that Saudi Arabia would face divine vengeance for the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a day after protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia, which put the cleric to death in a mass execution Saturday of 47 men accused of terrorism-related offenses, fired back, saying Iran had “revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism.”
The heated rhetoric underscored the mounting tensions between the two powers, each of which considers itself the leader of the Islamic world and supports opposing sides in conflicts across the region.
Setting off this round of recriminations was the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a Shiite cleric from eastern Saudi Arabia who often criticized the Saudi royal family and called for Shiite empowerment. Skeikh Nimr had become a leader in Shiite protests, and the government accused him of inciting violence.
Most of the reaction in the region to the execution broke cleanly along sectarian lines, with Shiite leaders in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere criticizing the Saudis for killing a man they called a peaceful dissident while Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies applauded what they called the country’s efforts to fight terrorism.
Most of the 47 executed had been convicted of being involved with Al Qaeda in a wave of deadly attacks in the kingdom a decade ago and included prominent leaders and ideologues. Four, including Sheikh Nimr, were Shiites accused of participating in violent demonstrations in which demonstrators and police were killed.
Source: The New York Times, Ben Hubbard, Thomas Erdbrink, January 3, 2016