A weekend war of words has ignited a full-scale diplomatic confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, pitting Sunnis against Shiites and Persians against Arabs. Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric touched off widespread protests, condemnation and violent backlash in Iran, prompting Saudi Arabia and its allies to announce they are cutting ties with that nation. Judy Woodruff reports.
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Persian Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and Iran stared each other down today in a full-scale diplomatic confrontation. The struggle pitted Sunnis against Shiites, Persians against Arabs, and had other nations choosing sides.
Anti-Saudi protests brought thousands of Shiite Iraqis into the streets of Baghdad today outside the heavily fortified Green Zone that's home to the U.S. Embassy. But the Saudis were undeterred, as Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made clear in an interview with Reuters.
ADEL AL-JUBEIR, Foreign Minister, Saudi Arabia:
We decided to cut off all diplomatic relations with Iran. We will also be cutting off all air traffic to and from Iran. We will be cutting off all commercial relations with Iran and we will have a travel ban against people traveling to Iran.
Today, Saudi allies followed suit. Sunni-dominated governments in Bahrain and Sudan announced they, too, are cutting diplomatic ties with Iran. And the United Arab Emirates said it's recalling its ambassador from Tehran.
All of this was sparked by Saudi Arabia's execution of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shiite cleric, on Saturday. He'd been a major critic of the Saudi government and a central figure of protests in 2012 before he was arrested.
His execution touched off widespread protests in largely Shiite Iran, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei condemned the Saudis.
AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI, Supreme Leader, Iran (through interpreter): Killing a knowledgeable man, who promoted virtue and prevented vice, and had religious zeal, is certainly a crime, a great crime. It is also a mistake, because the spilled blood will undoubtedly bring divine retribution.
Manmade retribution came quickly. Crowds ransacked Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran and set it ablaze early yesterday. That triggered the Saudis' decision to end diplomatic relations
Iran is getting support from Shiite protesters in large numbers across the region, including in Bahrain, Pakistan and Lebanon. And two Sunni mosques were destroyed in Iraq.
The spike in tensions has the U.S., the U.N. and others urging both sides to step back. But the White House also bluntly criticized the Saudis today.
JOSH EARNEST, White House Press Secretary:
There have been direct concerns raised by U.S. officials to Saudi officials about the potential damaging consequences of following through on mass executions, in particular the execution of al-Nimr.
And, unfortunately, this is a concern that we raised with the Saudis in advance, and, unfortunately, the concerns that we expressed to the Saudis have precipitated the kinds of consequences that we were concerned about.
It's still unclear what the consequences will be for ongoing Saudi Iranian proxy wars. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has led an air campaign against Shiite militants backed by Iran. And, in Syria, the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states are backing rebel groups against President Bashar Assad, a longtime ally of Iran.
Late tonight, in Tehran, the government of Iran voiced regret over the attacks on Saudi missions and vowed to arrest those responsible. We will delve more deeply into their confrontation after the news summary.