- International condemnation followed death of Nimr al-Nimr
- Tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia plummet to 3-decade low
Saudi Arabia’s execution of a leading Shiite cleric has triggered the worst crisis between the Sunni kingdom and its chief Middle Eastern foe, Iran, in more than two decades.
The execution of Nimr al-Nimr, who was a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, triggered international condemnation, with the harshest reaction coming from Iran.
Protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and set the building on fire. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saudi officials they will face “divine” revenge for their actions. In Riyadh, authorities responded on Sunday by cutting diplomatic ties and giving Iran’s ambassador 48 hours to leave the country.
The sharp escalation in tensions between the world’s largest oil explorer and a nation seeking to emerge from years of international sanctions may have wide-ranging regional repercussions, with the two already engaged in proxy confrontations from Syria to Yemen as they tussle for supremacy.
Here’s an overview of who’s involved and what may happen next.
Who was Nimr al-Nimr?
Nimr al-Nimr, 57, a Shiite cleric from Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, was a well-known figure at anti-government demonstrations and criticized Saudi rulers in some of his sermons for their treatment of the kingdom’s Shiite minority.
In 2009, he threatened to lead Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Muslims to secession, provoking a government crackdown in the minority’s eastern heartland. In his sermons, al-Nimr was critical of Sunni and Shiite autocratic rulers alike, though he reserved some of his most scathing attacks for the Saudi and Bahraini royal families.
In a meeting with U.S. diplomats in 2008, al-Nimr sought to distance himself from Tehran, according to a cable released by WikiLeaks. Iran, like other countries, acts out of self-interest, and Saudi Shiites shouldn’t expect Iranian support based on sectarian unity, he said. The report describes him as a “second-tier political player” in the Eastern Province.
Saudi security forces shot and injured al-Nimr in clashes with his supporters in 2012 as the Shiite cleric tried to escape, the Riyadh-based Saudi Press Agency reported at the time. Al-Nimr also shot at security forces and was eventually taken into custody and transported to a hospital, the news service said. He was sentenced to death in 2014.
What does his execution mean for Saudi Arabia?
While Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia largely escaped the unrest that spread across the Arab world from 2011, the country’s Shiites, who say they suffer discrimination, have occasionally protested and clashed with security forces. Most Saudi Shiites live near some of the world’s largest oil fields in the eastern region, and according to the CIA World Factbook, make up between 10 percent and 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population.
The execution “institutionalizes tension in Saudi Arabia by creating a symbol for Shiite grievances,” Ibrahim Fraihat, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said in an interview. “Not many people in the past saw him as the representative of the Shiite community, but now he has become one of the symbols of the tension between Shiite and Sunnis.”
In 2015, Islamic State militants took advantage of Saudi sectarian fault-lines and struck Shiite mosques in the Eastern Province.
Shiites are a majority in neighboring Bahrain, a small island that’s home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Bahraini authorities regularly accuse Iran of supporting extremist Shiite groups, a charge the Islamic Republic denies.
Why carry out the execution given regional tensions?
Given the complex dynamics in the region in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, al-Nimr’s execution was an illustration of Saudi Arabia’s “get tough” policy against Iran and internal dissent, said Scott Lucas, an Iran analyst and professor of international politics at Birmingham University in the U.K.
“The Saudis deliberately crossed the line by executing him, and to add insult to injury they used the rhetoric that lumps him in with al-Qaeda terrorists,” he said.
Al-Nimr was one of 47 men executed on Saturday. Many of them were Sunnis convicted of terrorism-related offenses, whom Saudi authorities described using terms it normally reserves for jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
How did Iran react?
Iranian protesters armed with rocks and firebombs massed outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran late Saturday and set parts of the building on fire. A small group stormed the premises, ransacking offices, and several were arrested, Tehran police chief Hossein Sajedinia told the state-run Islamic Students’ News Agency.
On Sunday, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Saudi rulers will face “the divine hand of revenge” for their actions. Khamenei, the country’s highest authority and a regular critics of Saudi policies, stopped short of saying Iran would take action.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, suggested he didn’t seek to escalate the confrontation. While he denounced the execution, he condemned the attack on the Saudi embassy as unjustifiable.
This incident might “spiral quickly into a domestic fight” in Iran between hardliners and more moderate factions close to Rouhani, Lucas said.
Will tensions between Iran and Saudi deepen further?
“The ball is in the Iranian court,” according to Lucas. Signs that the regime in Tehran is ready to step up the confrontation could include “any escalation in Iranian support for Houthi” rebels in Yemen or greater anti-Saudi activity by the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which has deployed fighters to Syria, Lucas said before the Saudi decision to cut ties. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen.”