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Iran-Saudi crisis deepens as diplomatic ties cut
[TEHRAN] Tensions between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbours reached new heights on Monday as Saudi Arabia and Gulf 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 ally Bahrain severed their relations with Tehran.
Saudi Arabia cut the ties late on Sunday, 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 followed suit on Monday, as Moscow offered to act as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran in a bid to ease tensions.
The United Arab Emirates also downgraded its ties, recalling its envoy from Tehran.
The growing crisis has raised fears of increased sectarian violence in the Middle East - including in Iraq where two Sunni mosques were blown up overnight - and of damage to efforts to resolve a range of conflicts from Syria to Yemen.
Bahrain made the same move on Monday, blaming the "cowardly" attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran and "increasing flagrant and dangerous meddling" by Tehran in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states.
Iranian officials denounced the Saudi move as a tactic that would inflame tensions in the region.
"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 is backing President Bashar al-Assad's regime and Riyadh supporting rebel forces - and the conflict in Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite rebels.
Iran was also angered by what it called the "incompetence" of Saudi officials in September at the annual hajj pilgrimage in which 464 Iranian pilgrims died in a stampede at Mina, near Mecca.
The spike in tensions comes after Iran last year secured a historic nuclear deal with world powers led by the United States, which raised deep concerns in Riyadh, a longtime US ally.
Washington on Sunday expressed concern over the growing dispute, with State Department spokesman John Kirby calling for "leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions".
In Moscow, a foreign ministry source told AFP Russia "is ready to serve as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran" in the dispute.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, on Sunday criticised those who attacked the diplomatic buildings, calling them radicals, and 50 suspects were arrested.
But the country's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Riyadh its rulers would face "quick consequences" for executing Nimr.
"It will haunt the politicians of this regime," he said of Saudi Arabia. "God will not forgive." As tensions rose Monday, Saudi football clubs in the Asian Champions League appealed for fixtures in Iran in February to be played on neutral ground.
In Shiite-majority Iraq, top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called the execution "an unjust act of aggression" and on Monday blasts rocked two Sunni mosques in the centre of the country, wounding at least three people.
A Sunni muezzin - the person appointed to recite the Muslim call to prayer - was also shot dead near his home in the city of Iskandariyah, security sources said.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the security forces were tracking down the perpetrators "who targeted mosques to sow sedition and undermine national unity".
The 56-year-old Nimr was a force behind 2011 anti-government protests in eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shiites have long complained of marginalisation.
He was among 47 men executed on Saturday, including other Shiite activists and Sunni militants the Saudi interior ministry said were involved in Al-Qaeda attacks that killed dozens in 2003 and 2004.
Nimr's brother Mohammed on Monday condemned retaliatory attacks on the kingdom's diplomatic missions in Iran.
"We appreciate your love towards the martyr #Sheikh-AlNimr who lives in our hearts but we refuse attacks on #Saudi ambassies in #Iran or others," Mohammed al-Nimr wrote in English on Twitter.
The family also called for Nimr's body to be handed over for burial, after authorities said it had already been buried.
Saudi Arabia branded Nimr an "instigator of sedition" and arrested him in 2012, after a video on YouTube showed him making a speech celebrating the death of the then-interior minister.
Three years earlier he called for the oil-rich Eastern Province's Shiite-populated Qatif and Al-Ihsaa governorates to be separated from Saudi Arabia and united with Bahrain.
Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia since King Salman ascended the throne a year ago with 153 people put to death in 2015, nearly twice as many as in 2014, for crimes ranging from murder to drug trafficking, armed robbery, rape and apostasy.