January 4, 2016
Bahrain and Sudan on Monday followed the lead of their Sunni ally Saudi Arabia and severed relations with Iran, as the political crisis deepened over the execution of Nimr al-Nimr , the dissident Shia cleric.
The escalation came a day after the Gulf kingdom cut its ties with Iran in response to the torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Protesters set fire to the building following demonstrations over the killing of Nimr, who was an outspoken critic of discrimination against Saudi’s marginalised Shia minority.
The US, UN and EU have condemned the decision to execute the firebrand cleric, which has reignited simmering tensions betwe en the two regional superpowers. The UAE also on Monday downgraded its diplomatic representation in Iran but stopped short of cutting ties.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has said Saudi would face “divine vengeance” for the “unjustly spilled blood” of Nimr.
A statement on Monday on Bahrain’s official news agency cited Iran’s “continuing and dangerous interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain, Gulf states and other Arab nations”. Diplomats were given two days to leave the Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchy.
Sudan’s foreign ministry announced the “immediate severing of ties” with Iran, and the Saudi press agency said Sudan confirmed the expulsion of Iran’s diplomatic mission from Khartoum in a phone call with Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, deputy crown prince and defence minister. Khartoum is also recalling its ambassador from Tehran.
Nimr was put to death on Saturday along with dozens of Sunnis convicted in Saudi of terrorism offences, sparking protests in Tehran, Bahrain and in Saudi’s Eastern province. Shia makes up about 10 per cent of the population of the Sunni kingdom.
Russia on Monday urged Iran, Saudi and the other Gulf states to exercise restraint and offered to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh.
“Moscow expresses serious concern further escalation of the situation in the Middle East under participation of major regional powers — Saudi Arabia and Iran — with which Russia maintains traditional friendly relations,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“We are convinced that difficulties and disagreements … must be overcome through dialogue … Russia, for its part, is ready to render necessary assistance to such efforts.”
Shia villages in Bahrain, which has been rocked by dissent among its majority Shia community for years, have been the site of large demonstrations since the death of Nimr, a vocal supporter of the Bahraini pro-democracy uprising of 2011. The dissent four year ago was crushed after Saudi led Gulf troops on to the island to reinforce the crackdown. Riyadh has said Shia Iran was behind the uprising, an accusation denied by protesters.
Sudan’s decision reflects its pivot from Iran to Saudi over the past 18 months. Until mid-2014 Khartoum and Tehran enjoyed close ties, signing a military co-operation agreement in 2008, and in 2013 expanding an Iranian naval base in Port Sudan.
But in 2014 Sudan closed several Iranian cultural centres. Last year it joined Saudi’s coalition against the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, sending hundreds of troops to join the campaign to restore Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Riyadh’s ousted ally.
Riyadh has given Sudan, whose economy is in a parlous state after 18 years of international sanctions, $1bn, and Qatar, another Sunni state, has deposited $1.22bn in the Sudan central bank.
The official news agency said the UAE has summoned home its ambassador in Tehran, keeping a chargé d’affaires in post. Abu Dhabi asked Iran to reduce the number of Iranian diplomats stationed in the UAE.
The UAE has joined Saudi in adopting a more muscular regional foreign policy to fill the security vacuum left by the upheavals of the Arab revolutions and continuing revolts.
“This exceptional step has been taken in the light of Iran’s continuous interference in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states, which has reached unprecedented levels,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Nimr was sentenced to death in 2014 after being convicted of “inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations” after what Amnesty International called a flawed trial.
He had been arrested in 2012 and charged initially with banditry and other offences after security services claimed he had opened fire on them.