The Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the Shiite theocracy of Iran began 2016 with an escalation in long-simmering tensions. The spark for the latest showdown was Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute a prominent Shiite cleric. Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after protestors attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and Consulate in Mashhad. The fallout continued for weeks.
On January 2, Riyadh announced the execution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, an outspoken religious leader who supported mass anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, along with 46 others for terror-related offences. Most of the 47 individuals were convicted of al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom a decade ago. Four Shiites, including Nimr, were accused of involvement in shooting police.
Shiites, a minority in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, are the majority in the oil rich Eastern Province, but have reportedly been marginalized for decades. Nimr, who was in his 50s, had a strong following among Shiite youth throughout the Gulf and was known for his criticism of both the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies. He was arrested in 2012 on charges of inciting sectarianism, sedition and other charges. Nimr was sentenced to death in October 2014.
Nimr’s execution prompted protests in predominantly Shiite Iran. Late on January 2, hundreds of Iranians gathered outside of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Demonstrators threw homemade firebombs at the compound. And dozens of people stormed the compound, started fires, broke furniture, and smashed windows in an annex next to the embassy. Riot police dispersed the crowd and reportedly arrested some 40 people. Firefighters were called in to extinguish the flames that damaged the embassy’s first floor and parking area.
The Saudi Embassy was not the first to have been assaulted. Iranians also attacked the U.S. Embassy twice in 1979, the Kuwait Embassy in 1987, the Saudi Embassy in 1988, the Danish Embassy in 2006, and the British Embassy in 2011, most of which led to a downgrade in diplomatic relations.
It's 23:50 here in Tehran, seems protest agnst Nimr execution continues outside Saudi embassy in Tehran right now pic.twitter.com/5LLj89FhYn
On January 3, Saudi Arabia severed its diplomatic relations with Iran. “The Iranian regime has a long record of violations of foreign diplomatic missions,” Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir told the media, referencing the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy and the 2011 storming of the British embassy. “The history of Iran is full of negative and hostile interference in Arab countries affairs, always accompanied with subversion, demolition and killing of innocent souls.”
Iranian officials reiterated their commitment to protecting Saudi diplomatic sites. President Hassan Rouhani said Nimr’s execution was no excuse for “rogue individuals and groups to commit illegal acts.” But he also said the move was in line with other sectarian policies pursued by Riyadh. Other signals out of Tehran likely exacerbated the situation. An image comparing Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State (ISIS) was posted on the website of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A Saudi executioner appears under the label “White ISIS.” Another version of the image asks “Any differences?”
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told their Austrian counterpart that they had no interest in allowing the situation to worsen. “Both foreign ministers gave the assurance that no one can have an interest in a further escalation,” a spokesman for Sebastian Kurz said. E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had separate phone conversations with the Saudi and Iranian ministers to diffuse tensions. She emphasized that the security and stability of the whole region, which is already facing great threats, is at stake. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also spoke with Zarif.
Meanwhile, Iranian protestors put up a sign to rename the street where the Saudi embassy is located after the sheikh.
Protesters removed a no-entry sign on Saudi embassy's street and replaced it with new Nimr St. sign (Irna news) pic.twitter.com/2Alastrzdb
On January 4, Bahrain also announced the severing of its diplomatic relations with Iran, alleging Tehran’s “blatant and dangerous interference” in its domestic affairs. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) said it was downgrading relations with Iran, recalled its ambassador, and said it would reduce its diplomatic presence in the country. The UAE also cited Iran’s alleged interference in the internal affairs of Gulf countries. Sudan also cutties with the Islamic Republic. And Saudi Arabia said it would end air travel to Iran and cut its trade links.
The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, flew to Saudi Arabia to assess the impact of the dispute on efforts to end the Syrian civil war. De Mistura “hopes that the adverse consequences of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran do not affect the peace process with the Syrians,” according to U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq. The two countries support rival actors in the conflict. Iran is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, while Saudi Arabia is a key backer of the opposition.
Ban Ki-moon told Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir that he was extremely troubled by the break in ties.He reiterated his opposition to capital punishment. The secretary general also urged Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to take the necessary measures to protect diplomatic facilities. Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon expressing regret about the incidents at the consulate and embassy. Iran “will spare no efforts in arresting and prosecuting all those who brought them about,” he pledged.
Moscow offered to act as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran. Secretary of State John Kerry also reportedly called Jubeir and Zarif to urge calm.
On January 5, Kuwait announced that was recalling its ambassador from Tehran. It described the attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate as a “flagrant breach of international norms.” Kuwait, however, did not downgrade its diplomatic ties or tell Iran’s ambassador to leave the country.
Turkey held Iran responsible for the protection of the diplomatic missions and urged both sides to exercise caution.
In a meeting with the Danish foreign minister, President Rouhani said that he hopes European countries will respond to Saudi Arabia’s use of capital punishment.
On January 6, Iraq sent its foreign minister, Ibrahim al Jaafari, to Tehran with an offer to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “We have solid relations with the Islamic Republic [Iran] ... and also we have relations with our Arab brothers and therefore we cannot stay silent in this crisis,” Jaafari said at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Jordan summoned Iran’s ambassador to emphasize its condemnation of the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions. Qatar recalled its ambassador to Tehran. And Djibouti cut ties with Iran out of solidarity with Saudi Arabia, according to Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf. The move was mocked in Iranian papers and on social media.
On January 7, Somalia cut diplomatic ties with Iran and gave its diplomats and embassy staff 72 hours to leave the country.
Iran also banned all imports from Saudi Arabia. The government said that Iranians would still not be able to go on the Umrah pilgrimage to the kingdom. The ban was first imposed in April 2015 in reaction to an alleged sexual assault on two Iranian men by Saudi airport guards. Iran also claimed that Saudi warplanes had damaged its embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. But no damage was visible on the building from the outside, according to The Associated Press.
On January 8, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif criticized Riyadh’s policy towards Tehran and alleged that “some in Saudi Arabia are on a mission to drag the entire region to conflict” in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Also, some 1,000 protestors marched in Tehran and chanted “death to al Saud.” Some carried posters with pictures of Nimr.
On January 11, Zarif published an op-ed in The New York Times outlining what he sees as Riyadh’s three-part strategy to derail the nuclear deal and perpetuate tension in the region: “pressuring the West; promoting regional instability through waging war in Yemen and sponsoring extremism; and directly provoking Iran.”
Iran’s interior ministry said that is dismissed Safa Ali Baratlu, Tehran Province’s deputy governor for security affairs, at least in part due to the failure to prevent the attack on the Saudi Embassy.
On January 19, Iranian Deputy Interior Minister for Security and Law Enforcement Affairs Hossein Zolfaqari announced 154 suspects had been detained or summoned for involvement in the embassy attack.
On January 20, Supreme Leader Khamenei spoke out against the embassy attack during a meeting with election officials. “Attacking the Saudi embassy… was really bad and harmed Iran and Islam, but this should not be an excuse to criticize our devout young people,” he said.
On January 21, Secretary of State John Kerry noted Khamenei’s remarks when discussing Iran-Saudi tensions in the context of Syrian peace talks. “The supreme leader went to the extraordinary length of actually apologizing yesterday,” Kerry told reporters in Davos. "That is very significant and I hope people will recognize that in today's context, measured against where we've been, that's a huge step.”
Nimr’s execution is only the latest controversy in the Iran-Saudi relationship. The two have been regional rivals for more than three decades. Statements from Iranian and Saudi officials as well as others on the latest quarrel are below, followed by a timeline of Iran-Saudi relations.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Doubtlessly, unfairly-spilled blood of oppressed martyr #SheikhNimr will affect rapidly & Divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians.
“The response to criticism should not be beheading and we hope that European countries that always react to human rights issues, fulfil their human rights responsibilities on the matter.”
“Saudi government tries to conceal its criminal act of beheading a religious leader through severing diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, forgetting the fact that it is not undoubtedly possible to cover or justify such a big crime as execution of a prominent figure.”
“Considering diplomacy and negotiations as the best solution to settle the difference among nations, we believe the regional situation nowadays is not that much safe and stable to go into such differences, thus all regional countries should become united and cooperate with each other to confront terrorism which is endangering the region by spreading over it.”
—Jan. 5, 2016, in a meeting with Denmark’s foreign minister
“This great scholar [Nimr] was imprisoned with spurious reasons and executed because of criticizing the Saudi Arabia government. In legal norms of any country, a person is not executed and beheaded because of criticism.”
“Individuals who attacked these missions out of ignorance or affiliation are criminals and I urge the judiciary branch to review this case out of turn.”
“Diplomatic missions and guests are legally and internationally immune and attacking these places in the country is against legal and religions laws and is considered as an insult to the political system’s reputation; it is like storming one’s house.”
“Those who storm diplomatic missions are away from Islamic and Iranian culture, as well as the law.”
“Unfortunately, the Saudi government, which is the government of an Islamic country, has attempted for so long to introduce and fan Shia-Sunni strife and create an Iranophobic atmosphere in the world’s public opinion.”
“Saudi Arabia’s move of severing diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran and urging other countries to do the same, was aimed at obstructing the process of peace, stability, and security in the region.”
“Saudi Arabia is seeking to conceal internal issues and its failure in its recent regional policies, and also putting Iran under pressure by carrying out these actions.”
“The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to pursue all his programs without paying attention to obstructions; JCPOA will soon be implemented and sanctions lifted.”
“Islamic Republic of Iran programs and goals, with a record of civilization and great power in the region, will not be affected by childish acts of novices in a certain government.”
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to establish good and constructive relations will all countries around the world, especially Islamic ones and neighbors.”
“For the past two-and-a-half years, Saudi Arabia has opposed Iran's diplomacy.”
“Saudi Arabia has moved against our efforts and, unfortunately, they opposed the nuclear agreement.”
Saudi Arabia has been “taking measures against the Iranian people” by trying to keep oil prices low.
“This trend of creating tension must stop. We need to stand united... and stop those who are adding fuel to the fire.”
—Jan. 6, 2016, in a joint press conference with Iraq’s foreign minister
Today, there are indications that some in Saudi Arabia are on a mission to drag the entire region to conflict, fearing that removal of the smokescreen of the manufactured Iranian nuclear threat would expose the real global threat posed by extremists and their sponsors.
The Saudi strategy to derail the nuclear agreement and maintain and even exacerbate tension in the region has focused on three inter-related domains: PR and pressure in the West, promotion and even active engagement in war and violence in the region and direct provocation against Iran. Examples of the first two are well-known, while the cases of provocation against Iran have not grabbed international headline primarily thanks to Iranian prudent restraint.
—Jan. 8, 2016, in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Saudi Arabia seems to fear that the removal of the smoke screen of the nuclear issue will expose the real global threat: its active sponsorship of violent extremism. The barbarism is clear. At home, state executioners sever heads with swords, as in the recent execution of 47 prisoners in one day, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a respected religious scholar who devoted his life to promoting nonviolence and civil rights. Abroad, masked men sever heads with knives.
“When it comes to protecting and also safeguarding and observing international commitments regarding protection of diplomatic missions, Iran naturally has taken proper action and will continue to do so.”
“The Saudi government is looking ... for some excuses to pursue its own unwise policies to further tension in the region.”
“Before [the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran], Saudi Arabia – with its strategic errors, hasty approaches, and recklessness – has intensified insecurity in the region, caused the growth of terrorism and extremism, and has hurt its own people and the Muslim countries of the region with its plot to reduce the price of oil.
“There has been no harm to Saudi diplomats in Tehran or Mashad.
“Now the Saudi authorities’ new strategic error is the execution of Ayatollah Martyr Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, who belongs to the Islamic world not one specific country.”
IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami
"The policies of the Saudi regime will have a domino effect and they will be buried under the avalanche they have created.”
"If the Saudis do not correct their path, their regime will collapse in coming years."
"The path the Saudi regime is taking is like the one Saddam took in the 1980s and 90s. He started a war with Iran, executed prominent clerics and top officials, suppressed dissidents and ended up having that miserable fate."
U.N. Ambassador Gholamali Khoshroo (to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon)
Upon instructions from my Government and referring to your Note No. LA/COD/4 dated 21 January 2015, which refers to UN General Assembly Res 69A/121 of 10 December 2014, entitled: "Consideration of effective measures to enhance the protection, security and safety of diplomatic and consular missions and representatives", I wish to state the following with regard to the recent incidents involving the premises of the Consulate General and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Mashad and Tehran, I.R. Iran, respectively:
1. On Saturday, 2 January 2016 a large group of people gathered in front of the Saudi Arabian Consulate-General in Mashad in protest against the unjustified and provocative execution of the high-ranking spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sheikh Bagher Nimr Al-Nimr, arrested in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, following his efforts to advance democracy and freedom of speech, and beheaded by sword on 2 January 2016. Necessary measures, including the increase in the number of security forces, were taken to prevent any assault against the premises of the Consulate. Unfortunately, however, the objects hurled by a number of the protesters hit the glass windows of the premises.
2. At the same date, numerous protesters (around 8000) staged a peaceful demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran following the announcement of the execution of Sheikh Nimr. Some of the protesters got unfortunately out of control at around 11: 00 p.m., and despite the extensive efforts made by the law enforcement authorities, some of them managed to enter the Embassy and inflict some damages on the building.
3. Upon arrival of police reinforcements, the protesters left the Embassy. More than 40 protesters were identified, arrested and handed over to the judicial authorities. An investigation is underway seeking to find other possible perpetrators.
4. While emphasizing its obligations in accordance with international law and relevant international instruments, especially The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 andthe Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, the Islamic Republic of Iran expresses its regret over the referred-to incidents and will spare no efforts in arresting and prosecuting all those who brought them about. The President of the Islamic Republic of Iran in his message stressed the need to pursue the issue and bring the elements behind the incidents to justice and provided necessary directions to the relevant government agencies, including the Ministry of Interior. The Chief of the Judiciary also reiterated the need to pursue this case in all its aspects.
5. The Islamic Republic of Iran will take necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents in the future.
I should be grateful if you would have this letter circulated as a document of the General Assembly under agenda item 119.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
—Jan. 4, 2016, in a letterto U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Spokesman of the Judicial and Legal Committee of Parliament Mohammad Ali Esfanani
“When a country has cut diplomatic relations with us, it means it is hostile with us.”
“The Saudis should know that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s behavior toward them comes with dignity and prudence, but such dignity, prudence and silence [regarding Saudi actions] does not mean that they can do everything. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s patience has limits.”
—Jan. 11, 2016, in a meeting with high-ranking judiciary officials
Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir
“After having been briefed on the details of the hostilities which the Saudi diplomatic mission in Iran sustained, I would like to further inform you that the Iranian regime has a long record of violations of foreign diplomatic missions. I, herewith, cite the occupation of the U.S. embassy in 1979, the attack against the British embassy in 2011 and yesterday's offense against the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran and consulate general in Mashhad.
“Such continual assault on diplomatic missions constitutes a flagrant violation of all international agreements, charters and treaties. Also, these attacks come after aggressive statements issued by Iranian prominent figures, a blatant provocation that encouraged others to attack the Kingdom's missions.
“These offenses are considered a continuation of the Iranian hostile policy in the region aiming at destabilizing the region's security and stability and spreading sedition and wars. This matter is certain as the Iranian regime provides safe havens on its territories for Al-Qaeda leaders since 2001.
“The Iranian regime has also provided protection for a number of the involved in Al-Khobar Towers explosion in 1996. In addition to these hostile attacks, the Iranian regime has managed to smuggle weapons and explosives, plant terrorist cells in the region, including the Kingdom, aiming to spread chaos and unrest.
“The history of Iran is full of negative and hostile interference in Arab countries affairs, always accompanied with subversion, demolition and killing of innocent souls. Upon these realities, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announces cutting its diplomatic ties with Iran and demands all the members of Iran's diplomatic mission (embassy, consulate and other offices affiliated to them) to leave within 48 hours.” —Jan. 3, 2016, in a speech
“There is no escalation on the part of Saudi Arabia. Our moves are all reactive. It is the Iranians who went into Lebanon. It is the Iranians who sent their Qods Force and their Revolutionary Guards into Syria.”
Nimr was “agitating, organizing cells, providing them with weapons and money… We should be applauded for this, not criticized.”
“[W]e have looked deeply into the Iranian role and the interventions of Iran in the region and how to confront that, and we have also looked into the latest development in what had been achieved in Camp David meeting. And the meeting, as was the case in all the cases, was clear and transparent and frank, and there was – we were on the same page, on different…”
“I don’t see a coming together of the United States and Iran the way some of the pundits have described it. Iran remains the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism. Iranian Government institutions are still designated as terrorist organizations. And Iranian officials, including in the security services, are wanted for terrorism.
“With regards to the release of [American] sailors and the – this is an issue that shouldn’t have taken place in the first place. Iran had no business taking people and putting guns to their heads and then showcasing those pictures around the world, and then claiming to be a country that acts in normal ways. Normal countries do not act like this when sailors inadvertently enter their territorial waters.
“With regards to the exchange of prisoners, I don’t – I wouldn’t call it an exchange of prisoners because every person released in the United States, as I understand, chose to remain in the United States, which tells you what a great country Iran is that none of them wanted to look forward to going back to it.
“With regards to the implementation of the nuclear agreement, Iran signed a deal, it must abide by the terms of those deals, and there will be consequences if Iran does not implement that deal.
“So overall, I think the United States is very aware of the danger that Iran’s mischief and behavior, nefarious activities, as I’ve described them, in the region can do. The United States is working with its allies, and particularly the GCC countries, to find ways to push back on those activities. I don’t believe the United States is under any illusion as to what type of government Iran is. And so we work with our American friends in these areas in terms of exchange of information, intelligence, in terms of training, in terms of ballistic missile defense, in terms of enhancing our defensive capabilities.”
“Regarding the statements of the Iranian officials, these are hostile statements and aggressive statements, but we don’t know their credibility. Saudi Arabia, in any case, is ready to take all the necessary measures to defend its territory and its people. And we (inaudible) intervention in the Arab affairs, and we are working with our (inaudible) in the Arab (inaudible) to confront that.
“And regarding the statements, these indicate the hostile and the aggressive stance of Iran against the Arab countries, and this is rejected by the Arab world, that it has been stated (inaudible) statement, and it is rejected by the Muslim world, as it was in the OIC, OI – or the Islamic Organization – the Islamic Cooperation Organization that have been issued in Jeddah.”
—Jan. 23, 2016, during press availability with Secretary Kerry
Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman
“It [war] is something that we do not foresee at all, and whoever is pushing towards that is somebody who is not in their right mind.”
“Because a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region. … For sure we will not allow any such thing.”
“Very simple - Iran to cease and desist from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, including our own. ... If they do so, we will of course have normal relations with Iran. We are not natural-born enemies of Iran.”
Information and Parliament Affairs Minister Isa bin Abdulrahman al Hammadi
“Senior Iranian officials' hostile statements, blatant interference and support to terror groups in the region over the past years have led to the establishment of a pan-Arab alliance to protect our countries and the Arab region.”
"In response to the barbaric attacks on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad ... the government of Sudan announces the immediate severing of ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran,"
“This exceptional step [downgrading of diplomatic relations] has been taken in the light of Iran's continuous interference in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states, which has reached unprecedented levels.” —Jan. 4, 2016 in a statement
Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah
The “hostile acts” against the Saudi embassy and consulate constitute “blatant violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 on a country’s commitment to the protection of diplomatic missions and their premises, as well as the safety of staff.”
We have seen the Saudi government's announcement that it executed 47 people.
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.
The United States also urges the Government of Saudi Arabia to permit peaceful expression of dissent and to work together with all community leaders to defuse tensions in the wake of these executions.
We are particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.
In this context, we reiterate the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions.
“The United States is concerned about rising tensions in the Middle East, of course, following recent executions in Saudi Arabia, attacks on Saudi diplomatic properties in Iran, and the cutting or downgrading by a number of countries of their diplomatic ties with Iran. We call on all sides to avoid any actions that would further heighten tensions in the region.
“Regarding the executions in Saudi Arabia, we continue to urge the Government of Saudi Arabia to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases. And we have expressed our particular concern over the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. We also condemn the attacks on Saudi diplomatic properties in Iran. We take attacks on diplomatic facilities, as you might imagine, very seriously. We note reports that some of the perpetrators of these attacks have been arrested, and we urge the Government of Iran to fully respect its international obligations to protect diplomatic property.
“On the severing of diplomatic ties, we continue to believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations are essential to work through differences. Increased friction runs counter to the interests of all those in the international community who support moderation, peace, and stability. We reiterate the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions. In this context, over the past day or so, Secretary Kerry and senior State Department officials have been in communication with several regional leaders. We have consistently urged everyone to de-escalate tensions in the region so that we can all continue to work on resolving the pressing issues in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, and elsewhere throughout the Middle East.
“Ultimately, solutions to problems in this region must come from leaders in this region. So while we continue to make all efforts to facilitate dialogue, the impetus is on local leadership to work through their differences and find the best path forward through this tension.
“[W]e do continue to be concerned about the need for both the Iranians and the Saudis to deescalate the situation in the Middle East; that we're urging all sides to show some restraint and to not further inflame tensions that are on quite vivid display in the region.
“And Secretary Kerry has been in touch with his Iranian counterpart; United States diplomatic officials in Saudi Arabia have been in touch with their counterparts to convey this message. I would anticipate that Secretary Kerry will be in touch with his Saudi counterpart at some point soon, as well, to deliver that same message.
“And we have seen that a lot of the volatility and instability in the Middle East has a tendency to break down along sectarian lines. It’s not a coincidence. And we believe that there is more that can be done by people on all sides to try to bridge those divides in a way that advances the interests of countries all across the region.”
“[T]here’s no denying the United States has a much stronger and more effective relationship with Saudi Arabia than with Iran. But there’s also no denying that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is something that has been the source of significant concern on the part of the Obama administration and previous administrations as well. Those are concerns that have been relayed directly by President Obama to the two Saudi Arabian leaders -- the two Saudi leaders that he has dealt with in his tenure as President, but these are also concerns that have been relayed to Saudi Arabia through a variety of channels. And I guess you could say that it is a testament to the strength of that relationship that we could be quite public and blunt about the concerns that we do have with their behavior.
“I would say that our concerns about Saudi Arabia’s actions in this regard are related both to concerns that we have about the impact that these actions have on Saudi Arabia’s national security, but we also have concerns about the impact that this has on U.S. interests in the region. For example, Julie asked I think an entirely legitimate question, which is we’ve got a very difficult situation that we’re trying to navigate in terms of reaching a political resolution to the situation inside of Syria. It was very difficult to get everybody around the table. It certainly is going to be even more difficult to get everybody back around the table if you have the Saudis and the Iranians trading public barbs and public expressions of antagonism between the two countries. So we obviously want the situation to deescalate and for all sides to take the kinds of steps that will reduce tensions in the region.” —Jan. 4, 2016, in a press briefing
Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia carried out 47 executions earlier today.
The EU reiterates its strong opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, and in particular in cases of mass executions.
The specific case of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights, to be safeguarded in all cases, also in the framework of the fight against terrorism. This case has also the potential of enflaming further the sectarian tensions that already bring so much damage to the entire region, with dangerous consequences.
The EU calls on the Saudi authorities to promote reconciliation between the different communities in the Kingdom, and all actors to show restraint and responsibility.
The Secretary-General is deeply dismayed over the recent execution by Saudi Arabia of 47 people, including the cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, as announced on 2 January by the country’s Interior Ministry. Sheik al-Nimr and a number of the other prisoners executed had been convicted following trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process.
The Secretary-General had raised the case of Sheikh al-Nimr with the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a number of occasions.
The Secretary-General reiterates his strong stance against the death penalty. He points to the growing movement in the international community for the abolition of capital punishment and urges Saudi Arabia to commute all death sentences imposed in the Kingdom.
The Secretary-General also calls for calm and restraint in reaction to the execution of Sheikh Nimr and urges all regional leaders to work to avoid the exacerbation of sectarian tensions. He deplores the violence by demonstrators against the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric
“The Secretary-General reiterated that the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was deplorable, but added that the announcement of a break in Saudi diplomatic relations with Tehran was deeply worrying.
“The Secretary-General urged both foreign ministers [Jubeir and Zarif] to avoid any actions that could further exacerbate the situation between the two countries and in the region as a whole.”
“[The U.N.] will be pushing forward and very much hoping that the current tensions will not impact negatively on the two peace processes [for Syria and Yemen].”
“Mr. de Mistura believes that the crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations is a very worrisome development and he stresses the need to ensure that it does not cause a chain of adverse consequences in the region.”
—Jan. 4, 2016, in reference to Ban Ki-moon’s conversations on January 3 and 4
Timeline of Iran-Saudi Relations
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been regional rivals for more than three decades. Tensions date back to the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Saudi monarchy, which based its legitimacy on Islam, felt its dominance threatened by the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Relations were strained throughout the 1980s, as Saudi Arabia quietly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Tensions eased slightly under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who sought to improve Iran’s relations with its neighbors.
But movement towards rapprochement stalled in 2005, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power and reverted to a hardline stance on foreign policy. The Arab Spring in 2011 further aggravated tensions, especially in Bahrain, where Shiites protested against the Sunni royal family. Saudi Arabia sent troops to quell the uprising and blamed Iran for provoking the unrest.
Tehran has been trying to improve relations with Riyadh since President Rouhani’s election in 2013. But the two countries have clashed over regional conflicts, particularly in Syria and Yemen. And in September 2015, hundreds of Iranians were killed in a stampede during the annual hajj ritual in Saudi Arabia. Tehran accused Riyadh of mismanagement, and Saudi officials accused Iran of playing politics in the aftermath of the tragedy.
The following is a timeline of Iran-Saudi relations since the 1979 revolution.
1980-1988: Iraq invades Iran, prompting an eight-year war.Saudi Arabia remains publicly neutral, but reportedly makes three of its ports available to ship military equipment to Iraq.
1981: Iranians clash with Saudi police after chanting political slogans in Mecca and Medina. Iranian officials accuse Saudi authorities of discriminating against Iranian pilgrims.
May 1981: Six Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain – form the Gulf Cooperation Council, in part as a security response to the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war.
1982: Saudi Arabia reportedly supplies Iraq with $1 billion per month in aid.*
May 1984: Iran attacks a Saudi oil tanker in Saudi waters, in retaliation for Iraq’s attempts to interfere with Iran’s oil shipping. Saudi Arabia shoots down an Iranian Phantom jet over Saudi waters.
1987: Shiite pilgrims clash with Saudi police during the annual hajj, resulting in a stampede. At least 400 people are killed in the clashes, including more than 200 Iranians. In response, Iranian protesters attack the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies in Tehran.
1988: Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran over the hajj clash.
1988-1990: Iran boycotts the hajj after Saudi Arabia reduces the number of Iranian pilgrim visas in response the clashes in 1987.
1990: Saudi Arabia sends aid to Iran after an earthquake kills 40,000 people.
1991: Riyadh and Tehran restore diplomatic ties.
1989-1997: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is elected president and takes a more conciliatory stance towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Trade and direct flights between the two countries increase.
1997-2005: President Mohammad Khatami comes to office and introduces a period of outreach to the Gulf. But Saudi officials grow wary of Iran’s growing influence in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
1997: Crown Prince Abdullah attends the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Tehran, becoming the most senior Saudi official to visit Iran since 1979.
1999: Iranian President Khatami meets with Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. He is the first leader to visit Saudi Arabia since 1979.
2001: Iran and Saudi Arabia sign a security pact on terrorism and drug trafficking.
2005-2013: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes to power and takes a more hardline stance on foreign policy. Tehran and Riyadh increasingly seek to boost their regional influence through proxy battles in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
2011: The Arab Spring fuels bilateral tensions. Saudi officials accuse Iran of inciting protests in Bahrain against the country’s Sunni royal family. The kingdom sends 1,000 troops to quell the uprising.
2011: The U.S. Justice Department charges two Iranians with attempting to murder Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al Jubeir.
2012: A series of protests against anti-Shiite discrimination erupt in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the protests.
2014: Saudi authorities issue a death sentence for Nimr al Nimr, a Shiite cleric involved in the 2011 protests. Iranian officials denounce the conviction.
March 2015: Saudi Arabia begins a bombing campaign in Yemen. Riyadh claims the airstrikes are a response to Iranian support for the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that took over large parts of the country in 2014. But the exact degree of Iranian support for the Houthis is debated.
July 2015: Iran and the world’s six major powers reach a deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Saudi officials publicly endorse the deal, despite past reservations.
September 2015: A stampede in Mina during the annual hajj kills at least 2,000 people, including hundreds of Iranians. Tehran accuses the Saudi government of mismanagement and threatens legal action.
November 2015: Iran and Saudi Arabia both attend Syrian peace talks in Vienna, along with more than a dozen other nations. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Saudi counterpart, Adel al Jubeir, reportedly get in a heated argument during the talks.
January 2016: Saudi Arabia executes Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, a prominent Shiite leader who supported anti-government demonstrations, along with 46 others for alleged terror-related offenses. The move prompts protests or condemnation from Shiites in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Lebanon, and Yemen. In Iran, protestors burn part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and storm the compound. Demonstrators try to attack the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad. Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Bahrain, and Djibouti sever diplomatic ties with Iran. And the UAE downgrades its relations with the Islamic Republic.
Click here for more information on Iran’s relations with the Gulf states.
* Bulloch, John; Morris, Harvey (1989). The Gulf War: Its Origins, History and Consequences (1st published ed.). London: Methuen.