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Middle East france 24

Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions escalate following cleric's execution

© Mohammadreza Nadimi, AFP | Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration on January 2, 2016

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-01-04

A Saudi Arabian man was killed in the home town of the executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr late on Sunday when gunmen opened fire on police, according to Saudi state media, as US officials urged calm between the kingdom and Iran.

The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported that security officers where shot at by an unidentified source in Awamiya, a village in the country’s Eastern Province and the home of Nimr.

The Shiite cleric, a prominent opponent of the ruling Al Saud dynasty, was executed on Saturday along with three other Shiites and 43 members of al Qaeda.

The execution prompted angry reactions in several countries, notably in Shiite-dominated Iran, where protesters stormed into the Saudi embassy, smashing furniture and lighting fires before they were removed by police.

Iranian demonstrators also attacked a consulate in Iran’s second city of Mashhad.

Saudi authorities said they had asked their Iranian officials to ensure security at the embassy, but Tehran failed to protect it.

In response, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran, ordering diplomats, as well as consular and embassy staff representing Tehran, to leave the country within 48 hours.

Tehran on Monday accused Riyadh of exploiting the embassy attack to fuel tensions in the region, adding that it was committed to protecting foreign diplomatic missions.

"Iran... is committed to provide diplomatic security based on international conventions. But Saudi Arabia, which thrives on tensions, has used this incident as an excuse to fuel the tensions," Ministry Spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari said in televised remarks.

‘Inhuman’ execution

The 56-year-old's execution has fuelled long-simmering tensions between the Middle East rivals.

Who was Nimr al-Nimr, the Shiite cleric executed by Saudi authorities?

Relations between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shiite-ruled Iran have been strained for decades, with Riyadh frequently accusing Tehran of interfering in Arab affairs.

The two countries have also been divided over the nearly five-year war in Syria, where Iran is backing the regime, and the conflict in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite rebels.

Nimr was a central figure in Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority until his arrest in 2012. He was convicted of terrorism charges but denied advocating violence.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned Nimr's execution, saying "God will not forgive" the kingdom for putting him to death.

"The unjustly spilt blood of this martyr will have quick consequences," he said, adding, "It will haunt the politicians of this regime."

‘Lowest Saudi-Iran relations since Iran-Iraq war’

Meanwhile, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani condemned the execution as “inhuman”, but also urged the prosecution of “extremist individuals” for attacking the embassy and the Saudi consulate, state media reported.

Tehran’s police chief said an unspecified number of “unruly elements” were arrested for attacking the Saudi embassy.

‘Defuse tensions’

The United States on Sunday urged regional leaders to take measures to ease the escalating tensions.

"We're aware that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has ordered the closure of Iranian diplomatic missions in the kingdom," US State Department spokesman John Kirby said about the diplomatic rift.

"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," Kirby added.

Earlier, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by phone and urged Tehran to "defuse the tensions and protect the Saudi diplomats", according to a statement.

The disruption in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may have implications for peace efforts in Syria. US Secretary of State John Kerry and others spent significant time trying to bring the countries to the negotiating table and they both sat together at talks aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the civil war.

Last month, Saudi Arabia convened a meeting of Syrian opposition figures that was designed to create a delegation to attend peace talks with the Syrian government that are supposed to begin in mid-January.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS, AP)

Date created : 2016-01-04

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