Saudi Arabia said on Saturday that it had summoned Iran’s envoy to the kingdom to protest critical comments by Iranian authorities over the execution of an influential Saudi Shi’ite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
In a statement late Saturday by the Saudi Press Agency, the Saudi Foreign Ministry described the Iranian criticism of its judicial system as “blatant interference” in its internal affairs.
Earlier, the Iranian Foreign Ministry had summoned the Saudi envoy in Tehran to protest the execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was among 47 prisoners executed Saturday. Iran’s parliament speaker warned that the execution would prompt “a maelstrom” in Saudi Arabia.
The execution threatens to stoke further sectarian tensions between the regional rivals who back opposing sides in civil wars in Yemen and Syria.
Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shi’ite cleric and dozens of al Qaeda members on Saturday, signaling that it would not tolerate attacks, whether by Sunni jihadists or minority Shi’ites, and stirring sectarian anger across the region.
Hundreds of Shi’ite Muslims marched through Qatif district in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in protest at the execution, an eyewitness said. They chanted “Down with the Al Saud!”, the name of the ruling Saudi royal family.
Nimr, the most vocal critic of the dynasty among the Shi’ite minority, had come to be seen as a leader of the sect’s younger activists, who rejected the quiet approach of older community leaders for failing to achieve equality with Sunnis.
Most of the 47 killed in the kingdom’s biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago. Four, including Nimr, were Shi’ites accused of involvement in shooting policemen.
The executions took place in 12 cities, four prisons using firing squads and the others beheading. In December, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula threatened to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for any execution of its members.
The move further soured relations between Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and its Shi’ite regional rival, Iran, which had hailed Nimr as the champion of a marginalized Shi’ite minority.
The website of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, carried a picture of a Saudi executioner next to notorious Islamic State executioner ‘Jihadi John’, with the caption “Any differences?”, and the powerful Revolutionary Guards said “harsh revenge” would topple “this pro-terrorist, anti-Islamic regime”. Saudi Arabia summoned the Iranian ambassador in response.
Protesters storm Saudi embassy in Tehran, set it ablaze
There were no immediate reports of casualties or injuries due to the violence. Photos from inside the ravaged ground floor appear to show it is now empty.
Protesters gathered in several cities across Iran on Saturday angered by the Gulf kingdom’s execution of al-Nimr, who was put to death along with 46 other prisoners.
Protesters in the city of Mashhad in northwestern Iran gathered on Saturday near the Saudi consulate, throwing Molotov cocktails at the building. Photos showed several protesters trying to climb the fence around the building. There were reportedly some clashes with police.