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Saudi Execution of Top Shiite Cleric Worsens Sectarian Tensions

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Saudi Arabia executed leading Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, along with 46 other people, in a mass execution on January 2. Nimr was a vocal critic of Saudi government policies, which marginalized and excluded the Shiite community. He was arrested in 2012, prompting protests in Shiite majority areas across the region.

The majority of those executed were Sunnis convicted of al-Qaeda attacks against Saudi Arabia, according to Reuters. Four Shiites, including Nimr, were executed for alleged involvement with shooting policemen.

Protestors in Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia marched through the streets chanting “Down with al-Saud.” Iranian protesters stormed part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Saturday and set fire to it, before Iranian security forces dispersed them.

Other protests against the Saudi regime were reportedly held in Bahrain, Pakistan, Yemen and London outside the Saudi Embassy.

Numerous human rights groups condemned the executions.  

Iran threatened vengeance against Saudi Arabia for killing Nimr, whom they hailed as a martyr.

“The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was reported as saying on Iranian state TV.

These killings will exacerbate already high tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East. It remains to be seen whether or not Iran or any of its regional affiliates will take concrete action against Saudi Arabia in response to the killings. Use of the words "divine vengeance" indicates Iran might be leaving the vengeance to Allah and therefore will not act.

The two countries vie for regional influence, but have avoided direct confrontation in the past. Most recently they avoided going to war in Yemen, where they are supporting opposite sides in an increasingly-brutal civil war.

Saudi Arabia seeks to send a message with these mass executions that dissent will be crushed. The regional impact of such a move is yet to be seen.

Watch protesters attack the Saudi Embassy in Tehran:

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org