The Current

Iran and Saudi Arabia in row over execution of Shia cleric

After Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent cleric, the reverberations from that killing continue to shake the region along religious and political lines. Today, we try to understand what motivates the rift and ask what's truly at stake for the Middle East and the world.
A protester holds a banner saying "to hell with you" as she takes part in a protest against the execution of Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama, Bahrain, January 2, 2016. (Reuters/Hamad Mohammed)
The decision makers of the Saudi government should not have any doubt that this blood will trouble them.  It will haunt them.- Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 

The diplomatic crisis engulfing the Middle East started on the weekend with the execution in Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shia cleric – Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

A rift opened immediately between Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose Shia leadership pronounced that al-Nimr's death would "cost Saudi Arabia dearly." 

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the execution of Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia. (Reuters/Toby Melville )

Soon protesters in Tehran had torched part of the Saudi embassy, while the Saudis themselves retaliated by cutting all diplomatic ties. Tensions have spread through the region, along Sunni and Shia lines, with Bahrain and Sudan similarly severing their diplomatic relations with Iran.

And today, Kuwait has recalled its ambassador to Iran.

Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington.

Shi'ite Muslims try to cross a barricade during a protest against the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed along with others in Saudi Arabia, in front of Saudi Arabia embassy in New Delhi, India, January 4, 2016. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi )

The tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have roots that go much deeper than this past weekend's execution.

And they go beyond religious differences in a region where both states seek to be the dominant political player. 

  • Vali Nasr is the dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author, a decade ago, of "The Shia Revival".
  • Ali Reza Nourizadeh is an Iranian scholar and journalist, and director of the independent Centre for Iranian and Arab Studies in London, England.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley, Lara O'Brien and Leif Zapf-Gilje.