By Abdul Hadi Habtor and Arthur MacMillan ,AFP
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Tensions between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors reached new heights Monday as Saudi Arabia and Gulf allies cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with Tehran in a row over the execution of a Shiite cleric. Angry exchanges following Saudi Arabia’s execution Saturday of prominent Shiite cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr erupted into a full-blown diplomatic crisis as Riyadh and then ally Bahrain severed their relations with Tehran. Saudi Arabia cut the ties late on Sunday, giving diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, after protesters set fire to its embassy in Tehran and a consulate in second city Mashhad. Bahrain followed suit on Monday, as Moscow offered to act as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran in a bid to ease tensions. The United Arab Emirates also downgraded its ties, recalling its envoy from Tehran. The growing crisis has raised fears of increased sectarian violence in the Middle East — including in Iraq where two Sunni mosques were blown up overnight — and of damage to efforts to resolve a range of conflicts from Syria to Yemen. Bahrain made the same move on Monday, blaming the “cowardly” attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran and “increasing flagrant and dangerous meddling” by Tehran in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states. Iranian officials denounced the Saudi move as a tactic that would inflame tensions in the region. “Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and (it) attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them to the outside,” foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said.
Opponents in Syria, Yemen Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposing ends of a range of crucial issues in the Middle East, including the war in Syria — where Tehran is backing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Riyadh supporting rebel forces — and the conflict in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite rebels. Iran was also angered by what it called the “incompetence” of Saudi officials in September at the annual hajj pilgrimage in which 464 Iranian pilgrims died in a stampede at Mina, near Mecca. The spike in tensions comes after Iran last year secured a historic nuclear deal with world powers led by the United States, which raised deep concerns in Riyadh, a longtime U.S. ally. Washington on Sunday expressed concern over the growing dispute, with State Department spokesman John Kirby calling for “leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions.” In Moscow, a foreign ministry source told AFP Russia “is ready to serve as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran” in the dispute. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, on Sunday criticized those who attacked the diplomatic buildings, calling them radicals, and 50 suspects were arrested. But the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Riyadh its rulers would face “quick consequences” for executing Nimr. “It will haunt the politicians of this regime,” he said of Saudi Arabia. “God will not forgive.” As tensions rose Monday, Saudi football clubs in the Asian Champions League appealed for fixtures in Iran in February to be played on neutral ground.