(CNSNews.com) – Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran Sunday in response to damage caused to its embassy in Tehran, as Shi’ites in Iran and across the Islamic world protested the execution by the Saudis of a prominent minority Shi’ite cleric.
The world’s foremost Sunni and Shi’ite nations accused each other of stoking sectarian strife and promoting terrorism.
Saudi Arabia on Saturday executed 47 people accused of terrorism, including al-Qaeda convicts and a Shi’ite cleric and persistent critic of the Sunni ruling family, Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. Beheadings took place in eight cities and execution by firing squad in another four, according to Saudi authorities.
It was not clear whether Nimr – who was based in the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province, where the “Arab spring” inspired Shia protests in 2011 – was beheaded or shot. His body was reportedly buried in an undisclosed location.
Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) charged the Saudi regime with acting like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), the Sunni jihadist group notorious for beheading its victims.
The IRGC in a statement also called the execution of Nimr “part of a Zionist plot to sow discord” between Sunnis and Shias, and predicted it would lead to the collapse of the Saudi government.
Warnings of an end to the fundamentalist Wahhabi regime also came from Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Addressing clerics in Tehran on Sunday Khamenei described Nimr as an “innocent scholar” and said “the hands of divine vengeance will surely snatch – by their necks – those cruel individuals who took his life.”
“Shedding the blood of this innocent person will cause serious troubles for the politicians and criminals of this regime in a very short period of time,” he said.
In thinly-veiled criticism of the West Khamenei also railed against “the silence of the self-proclaimed advocates of freedom, democracy and human rights, and their support for the Saudi regime,” his office said.
The U.S. and European Union have in fact criticized the executions, with State Department spokesman John Kirby in a statement expressing concern that Nimr’s execution in particular “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini similarly raised concern that Nimr’s execution has “the potential of enflaming further the sectarian tensions that already bring so much damage to the entire region, with dangerous consequences.”
As Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia from the grand mufti down justified the executions on the basis of the Qur’an and other religious texts, Iranian protestors stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, setting fires and causing damage. Protestors also attacked the Saudi consulate in Mashhad.
In response, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir announced that Riyadh was severing diplomatic ties with Iran, and giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom. Saudi diplomats were evacuated from Iran via Dubai, Al-Arabiya TV reported.
President Hasan Rouhani condemned what he called “willful and criminal acts” at the diplomatic compounds, saying they marred Iran’s image.
But Rouhani also took the opportunity to accuse Saudi Arabia of acting in line with “the policy of sectarianism and inciting terrorism and extremism in the region and the world.”
Amid angry protests by Shi’ites in Pakistan, Turkey, Bahrain and elsewhere, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called the execution a “crime” and “grave tragedy.”
Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah accused the kingdom of sending “a message in blood with the swords, with beheadings.” That message was that whoever criticizes the Saudi regime, “his blood will be spilled.”
“Any hope for Saudi rational behavior has ended,” he added. “When a regime loses its mind that means it has reached the abyss.” Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored Lebanese group, is designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization.
‘The terrorist capital of the planet’
The bitter rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has deepened in recent years as the two back opposing sides in regional conflicts. In Yemen, a Saudi-led airstrike campaign against Shi’ite Houthi rebels has cost some 6,000 lives according to the U.N., many of them civilians.
The Syrian civil war has fueled the enmity: Saudi Arabia funds and arms Sunni rebels fighting to topple the regime while Iranian forces and proxies like Hezbollah are fighting to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power.
Adding to bilateral tensions, hundreds of Iranian pilgrims were among those killed in a stampede near Mecca last September.
A hardline Iranian newspaper, Kayhan, wrote Sunday that while it is correct that the world condemn the executions, the West “is not totally blameless for what is going on in the Persian Gulf state.”
“The Saudi monarchy is but an extension of U.S.-Zionist will in the region, and as such its anti-Shia, anti-democracy campaign has been but an expression of Riyadh’s Wahhabi legacy,” said the paper, whose editor is close to Khamenei
“The West is part of the ongoing tyranny, has contributed to it, labored to defeat the opposition, and cooperated with Riyadh when their interests intersected,” Kayhan said.
Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars in a commentary lashed out at Saudi Arabia, calling Riyadh “the terrorist capital of the planet.”
“Despite the worldwide outrage, the regime is unlikely to face rebuke from the U.N. Human Rights Council,” it said, noting that Saudi Arabia is in fact a member of the council – “which is ridiculous at best.”
Criticism from the Saudi side included remarks by a foreign ministry official, quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency as saying, “the Iranian regime is the last regime in the world that could accuse others of supporting terrorism, considering that it is a state that sponsors terror, and is condemned by the United Nations and many countries.”
The official also lashed out at Iran’s “blatant intervention” in countries including Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.