Saudi Arabia Cuts Diplomatic Relations With Iran

Riyadh has given Iran's diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, as the crisis between the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom and Shi'ite powerhouse takes a turn for the worse.

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A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the execution of Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London, Britain, January 3, 2016.
A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the execution of Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London, Britain, January 3, 2016. Credit: Reuters

Saudi Arabia said on Sunday it had severed ties with Iran over the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, in a worsening of the diplomatic crisis between the regional rivals following the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has urged the two to take steps to calm tensions, with Saudi sources responding by saying they have no qualms angering the U.S. as the kingdom has had "enough" with Iran.

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir gestures announces kingdom is cutting ties with Iran. January 3, 2016. Credit: AFP

The Saudis have evacuated their diplomats from Iran, and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference that Iran's diplomatic mission and related entities have 48 hours to leave the kingdom.

Jubier said Riyadh would not allow the Islamic Republic to undermine the Sunni kingdom's security by creating "terrorist cells" within its borders. He also said the attack in Tehran was in line with earlier Iranian assaults on foreign embassies, part of what he called Iran's destabilizing regional polices.

"The kingdom, in light of these realities, announces the cutting of diplomatic relations with Iran and requests the departure of delegates of diplomatic missions of the embassy and consulate and offices related to it within 48 hours. The ambassador has been summoned to notify them," he said.

Unverified photos appear to show flames rising from Saudi Arabia's embassy during a demonstration in Tehran early on January 3, 2016.Credit: Reuters/TIMA/Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA

Saudi Arabia's decision to sever ties with Iran is "rash and irrational," the Iranian foreign ministry said in response.

"The Saudis have in the past caused instability in the region with such rash and irrational decisions," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, adding that the move will not cover up for the fact that the kingdom executed a religious figure.

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, alongside dozens of Al-Qaida members, signaling intolerance to jihadism and minority Shi'ite Muslim violence, and stirring a rise in sectarian tensions across the region.

Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted "divine vengeance" for the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr, an outspoken opponent of the kingdom's ruling Al Saudi family.

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans during a protest denouncing the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in front of the Saudi Embassy, in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016.Credit: AP

'Enough is enough'

The United States on Sunday responded to Saudi Arabia's decision by encouraging diplomatic engagement and calling for leaders throughout the region to take "affirmative steps" to reduce tensions.

"We're aware of reports that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has ordered the closure of Iranian diplomatic missions in the Kingdom," an Obama administration official said.

"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." 

In response, a person familiar with the Saudi government's thinking in Washington says the kingdom severed relations with Iran because "enough was enough," adding that Riyadh was less concerned with how its decision affects diplomatic efforts led by the United States, including the Syrian peace talks or the Iran nuclear deal.

The person, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomacy, said Sunday that the Saudi government is tired of what it sees as Tehran "thumbing its nose at the West," including the recent launch of ballistic missiles, while no one does anything about it.

"Every time the Iranians do something, the U.S. backs off. In the meantime, Saudi (Arabia) is actually doing something about it in Syria, in Iran and in Yemen," the source added.

The source later said he had mischaracterized the Saudi position toward the White House, saying that Riyadh was not indifferent to the Obama administration's views but felt it had little choice but to defend its interests where necessary. 

"It isn't that they don't care what the White House thinks," the source said. "Obviously the Saudis and the U.S. need to work together on quite a few issues. But it's an instance in which the Saudis (feel they) need to forge ahead on their own in their own best interests in terms of dealing with Iran in the region." 

Iranians broke into the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran early Sunday, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof in an attack Iranian President Hassan Rohani called "unjustifiable."

In comments Sunday, Rohani also condemned the execution of al-Nimr. Rohani said he ordered the Interior Ministry to apprehend those responsible for the embassy attack and bring them to court to "end forever such ugly acts." He also called the embassy attackers "extremists."

The ultraconservative Sunni kingdom and Shi'ite powerhouse Iran have waged a bitter struggle for regional power for years. The two countries each back opposing sides in civil wars in Yemen and in Syria.

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