Tehran - Several demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in
Tehran and torched parts of the building early on Sunday, in reaction to the
execution of a top Shi'ite cleric known for his activism against the Sunni
government in Saudi Arabia.
"A group of angry Iranians" attacked the premises
after the Saudi regime carried out a death sentence against Shi'ite cleric Nimr
al-Nimr, news agency Tasnim said.
Police clashed with demonstrators and several rioters were
arrested before security forces brought the situation under control. Some
reporters and photographers were arrested briefly in the chaos.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry temporarily banned all
gatherings in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in
"We understand the anger of citizens, but nevertheless
they are not to assemble in front of any of the diplomatic missions of Saudi
Arabia," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jaber Ansari said.
Saudi Arabia angered the region's Shi'ites after al-Nimr was
executed along with 46 other people. An Interior Ministry spokesperson said
they had been found guilty of adopting extremist ideologies, causing explosions
and killing civilians and security officers.
Saudi sources said four of those executed were Shi'ite. The
charges suggested the remainder were probably linked to the Sunni extremist
Al-Nimr, 55, had been condemned to death in 2014 on charges
of causing sectarian strife and disobeying the country's ruler.
Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional Shi'ite rival, called the
execution politically and religiously motivated.
"Instead of focusing on [Islamic State] terrorists
threatening the region and the whole world, the Saudis execute a prominent
figure like al-Nimr," Ansari said, referring to the radical Sunni militia
mainly active in Syria and Iraq.
The US government expressed concern that the execution could
exacerbate sectarian tensions "at a time when they urgently need to be
In Iraq, religious authorities from the Sunni minority were
among those condemning the execution.
Iraq's Dar al-Ifta, a key Sunni religious body, said it
feared the execution "could cast the sons of the Islamic community into
new internal conflict".
Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said opinions
and peaceful opposition "are rights protected by divine and international
"Their violation will have repercussions for the
security and stability of the region's peoples and their social fabric,"
he warned on Facebook.
Saudi Arabia defended the executions, saying the Iranian
comments were "irresponsible."
"When implementing court rulings, the kingdom does not
pay attention to any threats or comments," Interior Ministry spokesperson
Mansour al-Turki said.
Saudi Arabia's top state-appointed cleric, Abdel-Aziz
al-Sheikh, also advocated the executions, saying they were "fair and aimed
to boost security".
Al-Nimr, a Saudi national, repeatedly demanded increased
rights for the Shi'ite minority, who make up some 15% of the Saudi population.
Toby Matthiesen, author of a recent book about Shi'ite
dissent in the kingdom, wrote on Twitter that the execution of al-Nimr was
"the first execution of a political (as opposed to a militant) dissident
in decades in Saudi Arabia".
Chris Doyle, a commentator on Middle East affairs and
director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the execution was
likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions in the region.
The execution of al-Nimr "won't help Saudi Arabia's
image as an anti-Shia state, in the way that it treats the Shia, in the way
that it has stoked up sectarian rhetoric," Doyle told dpa.
"Iran also stokes up sectarianism," he said,
"the other way round."
Saudi Arabia's Shi'ites complain of discrimination, saying
they often struggle to get senior government jobs and benefits available to
The government denied the claims and said al-Nimr had
followed "in the footsteps of the devil," the official Saudi Press
Agency quoted an Interior Ministry statement.
"Through his terrorist acts, innocent blood was shed
with the goal to shake stability in this country."
Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy
chief, said al-Nimr's death had "the potential of inflaming further the
sectarian tensions that already bring so much damage to the entire region, with
Al-Nimr's backers protested in Sunni-ruled Bahrain, which
has a Shi'ite majority, with people chanting slogans against the Saudi and
Bahraini governments and clashing with police, witnesses said.
Saudi Arabia is believed to have executed 137 people on
various offences last year.
Beheading is a common method of execution in Saudi Arabia,
which applies a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The country ranks among
the top nations for carrying out the death penalty.