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Saudi Mass Executions Provoke Region-Wide Escalation

Saudi allies sever ties with Iran in row that could have long-term implications

Residents of Dearborn, Michigan protest against the execution of Shia Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. January 3, 2016. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Residents of Dearborn, Michigan protest against the execution of Shia Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. January 3, 2016. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Bahrain, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates on Monday severed or downgraded diplomatic ties with Iran, in the latest sign that Saudi Arabia's rash of brutal executions over the weekend has touched off escalating—and dangerous—geopolitical rift with region-wide implications.

While Bahrain and Sudan are completely eliminating relations with Iran, the UAE is downgrading its ties. The move by the three countries, all allies of Saudi Arabia, follows the latter's severance of diplomatic relations with Iran on Sunday after protesters set fire to part of its embassy in Tehran.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Sunday that the country "is breaking off diplomatic ties with Iran and requests that all members of the Iranian diplomatic mission leave... within 48 hours." The country is also reportedly cutting off all air traffic with Iran and banning its citizens from traveling there.

However, the original provocation for the row was Saudi Arabia's brutal mass execution on Saturday of 47 people allegedly convicted of "terrorism." Among them was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric and protest leader who has spoken out against wealth inequality and discrimination against the Shia community, which makes up 10 to 15 percent of the Gulf state's population.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Sunday said that the execution of al-Nimr "will cause serious troubles for the politicians of this [Saudi] regime in a very short time."

The Saudi execution, meanwhile, set off protests around the world, including in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia's mass executions were widely denounced as provocative and ultimately dangerous, in a region where Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing for geopolitical power and supporting opposing sides of the brutal war in Syria.

What's more, in a country where which "crimes" such as adultery are punishable by death, and numerous children face imminent execution, the executions were slammed as deeply inhumane. Iran is also guilty of brutal executions for crimes such as drug offenses.


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Ali Al-Ahmed, founder of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, told Democracy Now! on Monday that al-Nimr's execution "was a reckless act that will have repercussions for a long time."

Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Common Dreams she agrees: "This was an extraordinarily provocative move by the Saudis at a moment when sectarian tensions as well as political tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are pretty high."

"To deliberately carry out an act like this was clearly anticipated to exacerbate tensions, and it speaks to the willingness of the Saudis to go for broke in their efforts to undermine the Iran deal and force the United States to abandon the potential of a normalization process with Iran," Bennis continued. "It's very dangerous."

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, released a statement on Saturday condemning the executions by one of its closest allies, followed by calls for diplomacy and restraint. However, critics argue that unwavering U.S. support for the Gulf state, despite its severe human rights violations, has played a critical role in stoking the unfolding rift.

"The Saudi government has no reason to take seriously statement of concern by the U.S., because so far, no matter how egregious Saudi violations, U.S. policy has never shifted," said Bennis. "The rhetoric has shifted on occasion, but not actual policy, such as arms sales."

Meanwhile, global media outlets are warning of a growing sectarian split between Shia and Sunni governments.

But Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, cautioned on Monday that "The escalating rivalries and animosities between Iran and Saudi Arabia have nothing to do with the Sunni-Shia divide in the Islamic theology, even less with the common fate and destiny of Iranians and Arabs among other nations in the region."

Dabashi argued, "They are the firing fury of two states determined to outmaneuver the other at any cost."

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