Nations are taking sides in the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran after the Saudi government executed prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr over the weekend.
Nimr, who was in his late 50s, was a vocal critic of the Saudi government and was considered a central figure in 2011 protests that erupted as part of the Arab Spring.
He was arrested in 2006 and again in 2012, when he was shot in the leg by Saudi police during a car chase. The circumstances were unclear, but Saudi officials said he rammed a security forces vehicle, leading to a gun fight. His family disputed the claim, saying he didn’t own a weapon.
Nimr was sentenced to death in October 2014. On Saturday, he and 46 others were executed on terror-related charges.
Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran following his execution. Tensions between the Sunni monarchy Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran already are running high as they back different sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. (According to a BBC report, the roots of the dispute go much deeper.) People protested Nimr’s execution in Iraq and India as well.
“I’m shocked and saddened at Sheikh Nimr’s execution by Saudi authorities,” wrote Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Twitter. “Peaceful opposition is a fundamental right. Repression does not last.”
Arab states have lined up with the kingdom, including Bahrain, Sudan and United Arab Emirates, in severing or scaling back ties with Iran. Updated on Jan. 5: Kuwait also recalled its ambassador to Tehran on Tuesday.
The execution and its fallout led to a war of words between Iranian and Saudi officials.
“It is clear that this barren and irresponsible policy will have consequences for those endorsing it, and the Saudi government will have to pay for pursuing this policy,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi-Ansari, reported the New York Times.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry called the Iranian ambassador to the Saudi capital Riyadh to protest Iran’s “aggressive” statements, which it called “blatant interference in the kingdom’s affairs,” according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia also was planning to end flights and trade with Iran.
It’s the first time since the period between 1988-1990 that diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been formally cut, reported the Washington Post.
The United States responded to the executions with a statement from the State Department saying, “We have previously expressed our concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia and have frequently raised these concerns at high levels of the Saudi government. We reaffirm our calls on the government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights, and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases.”