TEHERAN/RIYADH (AFP/REUTERS) - Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut ties with Iran after attacks on the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in the Islamic Republic will not distract from Riyadh’s “big mistake” of executing a top Shi'ite cleric, a senior Iranian official said on Monday (Jan 4).
“By deciding to sever (diplomatic) relations, Saudi Arabia cannot make (the world) forget its big mistake of executing a cleric,” Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said, according to the Irna agency.
Riyadh’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr sparked widespread protests across Shi'ite-majority countries in the Middle East, with a mob attacking the Saudi Embassy in Teheran and a consulate in the second city Mashhad.
Saudi Arabia said on Sunday (Jan 3) that it had severed ties with Iran over the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Teheran, in a worsening diplomatic crisis between the regional rivals. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference that members of Iran's diplomatic mission and related entities in Saudi Arabia had been given 48 hours to leave. He said Riyadh would not allow the Islamic Republic to undermine the Sunni kingdom's security.
The diplomatic fallout came as Iran's supreme leader said Saudi Arabia would face "divine revenge" for executing Nimr, and as Western nations voiced concern about escalating sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Muslims.
Saudi Arabia "is breaking off diplomatic ties with Iran and requests that all members of the Iranian diplomatic mission leave... within 48 hours," Mr Jubeir said.
"Iran's history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues, and it is always accompanied by destruction," he said, as he accused Teheran of seeking to "destabilise" the region.
On Saturday, a mob attacked the Saudi Embassy in Teheran and a consulate in second city Mashhad amid protests at Nimr's execution.
Mr Jubeir said the Saudi authorities had asked their Iranian counterparts to ensure security at the embassy but they did not cooperate and failed to protect it.
Nimr, 56, was a force behind 2011 anti-government protests in oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shi'ites have complained of marginalisation.
He was put to death along with 46 other people, Shi'ite activists and convicted Sunni militants who the Saudi Interior Ministry says were involved in Al-Qaeda attacks that killed dozens in 2003 and 2004.
Some were beheaded and others were shot by firing squad.
Iran has said it arrested 44 people over the embassy attacks, and President Hassan Rouhani said the demonstrators were "radicals" and the assaults "totally unjustifiable".
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned Nimr's execution, saying "God will not forgive" Saudi Arabia for putting him to death.
"It will haunt the politicians of this regime," he said.
Relations between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite-ruled Iran have been strained for decades, with Riyadh frequently accusing Teheran of interfering in Arab affairs.
Both countries have also been divided over the nearly five-year war in Syria, where Iran is backing the regime and in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Iran-backed rebels.
Mr Khamenei was joined in his condemnation of Nimr's execution by Iraq's top Shi'ite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called the death sentence "an unjust act of aggression".
Their comments, echoed by other regional religious and political leaders, came as protests in Iran on Sunday spread to Bahrain, Pakistan, Indian Kashmir and Lebanon.
The head of Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement allied to Iran, Mr Hassan Nasrallah, accused Riyadh of seeking to spark a "conflict between Sunni and Shi'ite" Muslims.
Iraq's Foreign Ministry accused Saudi Arabia of using the fight against "terrorism" to silence its opposition.
Saudi Arabia had branded Nimr an "instigator of sedition" and arrested him in 2012, after a video on YouTube showed him making a speech celebrating the death of the then interior minister.
Three years earlier, he had called for the oil-rich Eastern Province's Shi'ite-populated Qatif and Al-Ihsaa governorates to be separated from Saudi Arabia and united with Bahrain.
Shi'ites in the neighbouring countries complain of marginalisation.
Demonstrations outside the Saudi Embassy and at Palestine Square in Teheran attracted around 1,500 people on Sunday, with chants of "Death to the House of Saud".
"His death will start a revolution which hopefully will lead to the fall of the Saudi family," said Ms Rezvan, a 26-year-old in a traditional black chador who declined to give her last name.
On Baghdad's Palestine Street, Iraqi cleric Ahmed al-Shahmani said: "The House of Saud has opened the gates of hell on its own regime." In Bahrain, where the authorities defended Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf allies of the Riyadh, the police used buckshot and tear gas against Shi'ite protesters who threw petrol bombs. Arrests were reported.
Nimr's execution was widely condemned.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply dismayed", while the United States warned that Riyadh risked "exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced".
The European Union, Germany and France deplored the executions, while Britain, which is careful to protect trade and investment links with Saudi Arabia, reiterated its opposition to the death penalty.
Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry said the executed men were convicted of adopting the radical "takfiri" ideology, joining "terrorist organisations" and implementing "criminal plots".
Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia since King Salman ascended the throne a year ago with 153 people put to death in 2015, nearly twice as many as in 2014, for crimes ranging from murder to drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy.
Human Rights Watch said Saturday's "mass execution was the largest since 1980" when 68 militants who had seized Mecca's Grand Mosque were beheaded, and called it a "shameful start to 2016".
Amnesty International said Saudi Arabia was using Nimr's execution "to settle political scores".
But on Sunday, Mr Jubeir said those executed had received "fair and transparent" trials and were convicted of carrying out "terrorist operations that led to the deaths of innocents".