iran tehran saudi arabia embassay.jpg
Photograph: EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH

Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday and ordered Iranian diplomats to leave the country amid tensions between the two regional powers over Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has decided to sever its ties with Iran and has requested all members of the Iranian diplomatic mission to leave within 48 hours,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said.

He added at a press conference in Riyadh that Saudi diplomats had already left Tehran en route for home.

The move comes after angry Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran protesting the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr known for activism against the kingdom’s Sunni rulers.

Al-Jubeir called the attack on the embassy a “flagrant breach of international charters.”

He accused Iran of sheltering leaders from al-Qaeda.

“We will not allow Iran to threaten our security and support those who threaten the region’s stability,” he said.

Iran denounced the move to cut ties and said the Saudis cannot use the move to cover the execution of al-Nimr.

"The Saudis have in the past caused instability in the region with such rash and irrational decisions," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, according to the Tasnim news agency.

Earlier on Sunday, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened regional rival Saudi Arabia with "divine vengeance" over executing al-Nimr.

The Shiite cleric was among 47 people that the Saudi government said it had executed on Saturday after their convictions on terrorism-related charges.

The executions have sparked outrage in the region and raised fears they could further stoke sectarian tensions.

"The unjustly spilled blood of this martyr will have consequences," Khamenei said, according to the ISNA state news agency. "The Saudi leaders will feel divine vengeance."

Al-Nimr, 55, repeatedly demanded increased rights for the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia, who make up some 15 per cent of the population. He had been condemned to death in 2014 on charges of causing sectarian strife and disobeying the country's ruler.

The cleric never called for an armed uprising and had only fulfilled his religious duties, Khamenei said.

Iranian police arrested 40 demonstrators after the embassy attack in which parts of the building were set on fire.

Iranian President Hassan Rowhani condemned the violence. "The attack by extremists on the Saudi embassy in Tehran can in no way be justified and it had negative consequences for Iran's image."

The Interior Ministry, secret service and police should go after the culprits forcefully, Rowhani said in a statement.

In Cairo, Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby condemned the embassy attack as a "flagrant breach of international charters."

He called on Iran to refrain from "interfering" in the affairs of Arab countries.

Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies have frequently accused Iran of inciting Shiites in their countries to cause unrest, an accusation denied by Tehran.

The US and European Union both expressed concern and called for avoiding an escalation of sectarian tensions in the region.

Relations between Riyadh and Tehran have soured in recent months with both backing opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

Saudi authorities, meanwhile, refused to hand over the bodies of those executed, including that of al-Nimr, to their families, his brother Mohammed al-Nimr said in a tweet.

"Call from authorities told us that martyrs' bodies were buried in Muslim cemeteries away from their relatives."

There was no official comment.

Al-Nimr's execution has also sparked protests in neighbouring Bahrain and Iraq.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani denounced al-Nimr's execution as "unjust" and described him as a "martyr."

"We have received with extreme sadness and sorrow the news of the martyrdom of our faithful brothers, including the late Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr," he said in a statement, according to independent Iraqi news website Alsumaria.

Saudi sources said those executed included four Shiites.

Saudi Arabia's Shiites complain of discrimination, saying they often struggle to get senior government jobs and benefits available to other citizens. The government has repeatedly denied the claims. 

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