Riyadh, Jan 4 (AFP) Tensions between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbours reached new heights today as Saudi Arabia and its allies cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with Tehran in a row over the execution of a Shiite cleric.
Angry exchanges following Saudi Arabia’s execution Saturday of prominent Shiite cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr erupted into a full-blown diplomatic crisis as Riyadh and then Bahrain and Sudan severed their relations with Tehran, the main Shiite power.
The United States and other Western nations urged calm, amid fears the dispute could derail efforts to resolve conflicts across the Middle East, from Syria to Yemen.
It has also raised concerns of an increase in sectarian violence, including in Iraq where two Sunni mosques were blown up overnight.
Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran late yesterday, giving diplomats 48 hours to leave the country, after protesters set fire to its embassy in Tehran and a consulate in second city Mashhad.
Bahrain and Sudan followed suit today, as Moscow offered to act as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran.
The United Arab Emirates also downgraded its ties, recalling its envoy from Tehran and reducing the number of its diplomats in the country.
Sunni Arab nations accused Tehran of repeatedly meddling in their affairs, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir saying “Iran’s history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues”.
Bahrain accused Iran of “increasing flagrant and dangerous meddling” in Gulf and Arab states, while the UAE said Iranian interference had reached “unprecedented levels”.
Some 80 Saudis, including diplomats and their families, had already left Iran and arrived in Dubai today, diplomatic sources said.
Iranian officials denounced the Saudi move as a tactic that would inflame regional tensions.
“Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and (it) attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them to the outside,” foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are on opposing ends of a range of crucial issues in the Middle East, including the war in Syria — where Tehran backs President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Riyadh supports rebel forces — and Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite insurgents.
The spike in tensions comes after Iran last year secured a historic nuclear deal with world powers led by the US sparking major concern in Riyadh, a longtime US ally.