JAN. 3, 2016
Saudi Arabia Cuts Ties With Iran Amid Fallout From Cleric's Execution
By BEN HUBBARD
BAGHDAD -- Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday and gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom, marking a swift escalation in a strategic and sectarian rivalry that underpins conflicts across the Middle East.
The surprise move, announced in a news conference by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, followed harsh criticism by Iranian leaders of the Saudis' execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr,  and the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by protesters in response.
The cutting of diplomatic ties came at a time when the United States and others had hoped that even limited cooperation between the two powers could help end the crushing civil wars in Syria and Yemen while easing tensions in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Instead, analysts feared it would increase sectarian divisions and investment in proxy wars. "This is a very disturbing escalation," said Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a research center based in London. "It has enormous consequences for the people of the region, and the tensions between the two sides are going to mean that instability across the region will continue."
American officials have said the Saudi-Iranian split does not bode well for international peacemaking efforts that require the two powers to make compromises.
The United States called for dialogue, with the State Department spokesman, John Kirby, saying, "We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in working through differences and we will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions."
Secretary of State John Kerry, from his home in Idaho, spoke Sunday with Iran's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif. The two have a close relationship, developed while negotiating the Iranian nuclear accord. Officials would not describe the contents of the call, but it was clearly an effort to urge the Iranians not to escalate the situation further by retaliating.
Still, the prospects for accommodation appeared to have reached their lowest point in years. Saudi Arabia and Iran follow separate strands of Islam and have long been rivals for influence across the Middle East and beyond. That has accelerated in recent years as the Iraq war and the Arab Spring uprisings upturned the regional order and gave both nations new ways to extend their reach.
That put them on opposite sides of various conflicts, often divided by sect. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia sent tanks to support the Sunni monarchy against protesters led by the island nation's Shiite majority. In Syria, Iran has bankrolled the government of President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia has supported Sunni rebels seeking his ouster. And in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has led an air campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels.
Further straining tensions are Saudi concerns that the Iranian nuclear agreement could increase Tehran's ability to spread its influence. And Iran remains angry over Saudi Arabia's handling of a stampede during the hajj in September that left more than 2,400 pilgrims dead, including more than 450 Iranians, according to a count by The Associated Press. 
But setting off the war of words that finally broke relations was Saudi Arabia's execution on Saturday of Sheikh Nimr, who had called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family and served as a spiritual leader for protesters from the kingdom's Shiite minority. The Saudi government accused him of inciting violence and executed him with 46 others, most of them said to be members of Al Qaeda.
The reaction in the region generally broke cleanly along sectarian lines, with Shiite leaders criticizing the Saudis for killing a man they called a peaceful dissident, while Saudi Arabia's Sunni allies applauded what they called the country's efforts to fight terrorism.
Then late Saturday, protesters in Tehran ransacked the Saudi Embassy, and Iranian leaders turned up the rhetoric. "God's hand of retaliation will grip the neck of Saudi politicians," Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in comments reported on his official website.
The Iranians did, however, appear to take steps to prevent the dispute from escalating further, arresting 40 Iranians in the anti-Saudi mayhem.
Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, condemned the execution, but said that the attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and on the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad had damaged Iran's reputation. "We do not allow rogue groups to commit illegal actions and damage the holy reputation of the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said in a statement. Outside the Middle East, some criticized the Saudi justice system and the mass execution, the largest in the kingdom in decades.
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said Saturday that he was "deeply dismayed" by the execution of Sheikh Nimr and the other men after "trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process." The European Union cited similar questions about "freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights."
The Obama administration had appeared caught by surprise by the mass execution and scrambled at first to understand exactly who had been put to death. Privately several senior administration officials expressed anger at the Saudis, both for what one called "an apparent absence of due process" in the executions, and another for "negligent disregard" for how it could inflame the region. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomatic engagement with both countries.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry responded to Iran's criticism on Sunday by accusing it of "blind sectarianism" and of spreading terrorism. Hours later, Mr. Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, announced the ending of diplomatic ties at a news conference in Riyadh, saying the kingdom would not allow Iran to undermine its security. "The history of Iran is full of negative and hostile interference in Arab countries, always accompanied by ruin, destruction and the killing of innocent souls," he said. Analysts said the split could further destabilize the region.
"These countries don't trust one another, and they see every event as an opportunity to raise tensions," said Abbas Kadhim, a senior foreign policy fellow at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Since Saudi Arabia and Iran both appear reluctant to attack each other directly, he worried that they would increase their investment in indirect confrontations elsewhere. "Both countries will try their best to try to fortify their proxies and their activities, which is going to create more trouble," Mr. Kadhim said.
That risks derailing a new round of international peace talks aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, a process that Mr. Kerry has worked hard to get going.
The talks, meant to begin this month, were to be the first to bring together the Syrian government, the opposition and a range of countries that include Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"We're obviously concerned this could blow up the process," one senior Obama administration official said. "But it's too early to say what the impact could be."
Saudi officials have long said they think that Mr. Kerry's effort is doomed to failure, and that was before Sunday's diplomatic breach with Iran.
Still, Obama administration officials noted Iran's efforts over the weekend to keep the situation on the streets from spinning out of control. "The Iranians, in this case, acted responsibly," Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the C.I.A., said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "The police showed up very quickly. They made a number of arrests."
Despite that, officials believe that the Sunni-Shiite proxy war that was already underway in Syria and Yemen may only grow more intense, at least for a while. And in coming weeks the United States and its negotiating partners in the Iran deal are preparing to carry out that accord, including an end to sanctions that have tied up more than $100 billion in Iranian assets frozen in overseas bank accounts. Critics are already arguing that will give Iran more money to fund the conflict in Syria and beyond.
Shortly after announcing the execution of Sheikh Nimr on Saturday, Saudi Arabia said it was ending a two-and-a-half-week-old cease-fire in Yemen that had never really taken hold.
Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign in Yemen almost 10 months ago, largely driven by fears that Iran was supporting the Houthi rebels who had driven the Yemeni government from power and sought to turn them into a proxy military force on the kingdom's southern border.
But Western diplomats say the Saudis vastly overstated the Iranian role, at least at the war's start. Nonetheless, a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, backed by the United States, has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes. The Houthis remain in control of large parts of the country, and the Saudi-led coalition has struggled to secure the areas it has managed to capture.
Peace talks held in Switzerland last month ended in failure, and there is little hope that a second scheduled to begin next week will deliver a better result.
Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Cairo, David E. Sanger from Washington, and Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran.