Beirut (AsiaNews) – Iran’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir yesterday announced that Saudi Arabia has broken off diplomatic relations with Tehran after groups of protesters sacked its embassy the Iranian capital and the consulate in the city of Mashad . Al-Jubeir also said that all Iranian diplomats have been given notice that they must leave the country within 48 hours.
The demonstrations were sparked by the execution - two days ago – of Shia Nimr al-Nimr, accused of "terrorism" by the Saudi authorities. Along with al-Nimr another 46 "terrorists" were executed including some Sunnis belonging to al-Qaeda and other Shiites. Several of them were beheaded, others shot in front of a firing squad.
On the evening of January 2 hundreds of Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in the northern district of Tehran throwing Molotov cocktails and looting consular offices.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei compared the Saudi executions to those perpetrated by the Islamic State and called for "divine retribution" on the house of Saud.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been more composed in his response. He condemned the execution of al-Nimr as a "historic mistake", but also condemned the violence of the demonstrators at the embassy and asked judicial authorities to punish the perpetrators of such "illegal actions". Iranian police have arrested 44 people for the attack, described as "totally unjustified" by Rouhani.
The UN, US and European Union had previously recommended Riyadh not to execute al-Nimr to prevent fomenting new tension between Sunnis and Shiites, and especially a new front in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The two nations have been locked in a decades long struggle for control over the Islamic world, which they fight by proxy in Syria and Yemen. In Syria, Tehran supports Assad and fights the Islamic State; Riyadh supports all Assad’s opponents.
In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthi minority (Shia branch); Saudi Arabia supports the government of Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, and accepts the collaboration of al-Qaeda rebel groups.
The killing of al-Nimr has led to Islamic Shia demonstrations and criticism worldwide, such as in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Indian Kashmir. Demonstrations of Shiites were held in Europe and the United States.
According to many analysts, the Saudis reckless action threatens to further inflame the Middle East region making it even more difficult to find solutions to the war in Syria and Yemen, while trying to open new dialogue on several fronts.
In addition, Riyadh’s actions have given greater impetus to the conservatives in Tehran and the enemies of Rouhani, whose moderate position led to success in talks that led to the international agreement on the Iranian nuclear program.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have had ups and downs since the Khomeini revolution of 1979. Diplomatic relations were interrupted from 1987 to 1991, after clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi forces in Mecca in 1987, where about 400 Iranians died.
In 2014 there were attempts at a distension, with an invitation extended to the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Rouhani to come on pilgrimage to Mecca, which, however, that never took place. The death of King Abdallah and the ascent to the throne of King Salman and especially the ambitious Mohammed bin Nayef (the king’s nephew), as interior minister, and Mohammed Salman bin (the king’s son), as defense minister has led to a hardening of Saudi Arabia’s political positions.