Hundreds of Iranians, some carrying banners calling for the death of Saudi Arabia’s rulers, protested outside the kingdom’s embassy as tension between the rival nations deepened over the war in Yemen.
Riot police were deployed to protect the embassy in Tehran, where protesters tied a cardboard cut-out of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman with blood on his hands to a lamp post. The rally was organized by the Basij paramilitary group, which is linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The crisis in Yemen is fanning the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two nations on opposite ends of a four-year war in Syria and other conflicts in the region. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies accuse the Islamic Republic of sending weapons to Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels, a charge Iranian officials have denied.
“I’m here to protest the crimes of Al Saud in Yemen and it’s aggression against the Yemeni people,” said 23-year-old student Hesan Salih, referring to the Saudi ruling family.
Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition of predominantly Sunni-led nations last month to launch airstrikes against the Houthis last month to restore the government of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi and force the Houthis to resume talks. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called the Saudi-led bombing “genocide” against the Yemeni people.
“There is a fierce new cold war taking place between Iran and Saudi Arabia throughout Arab lands,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern studies at London School of Economics. “My instinct is that both sides will not allow their rivalry to escalate into a direct confrontation. There is much at stake and both sides would lose more than they gain.”
The Houthis, who say they have been marginalized by the central government for decades, took over most of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in September and have since advanced into other parts of the country.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have refused to rule out a ground invasion. The kingdom strengthened its military positions along its 1,100-mile (1,770-kilometer) frontier with Yemen as the coalition bombing campaign started against the Houthis. The terrain makes it difficult to prevent cross-border strikes by the Houthis, who have fired on Saudi positions from mountainous areas inside Yemen.