When Iran learned that Saudi Arabia had beheaded a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, on Saturday, "the Shiite theocracy in Iran took it as a deliberate provocation by its regional rival and dusted off its favored playbook, unleashing hard-liner anger on the streets," says The New York Times. After Iranian protesters torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran and another Saudi diplomatic outpost in Iran, however, "Iranian leaders are suddenly forced to reckon with whether they played into the Saudis' hands," letting Riyadh gain "the upper hand in the new diplomatic crisis" instead of capitalizing on "global outrage" at Saudi Arabia's execution of al-Nimr and 46 other prisoners.
On Tuesday, Kuwait said it has recalled its ambassador to Iran, following moves by the United Arab Emirates — a key Iranian trading partner — to downgrade diplomatic ties and by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Sudan to sever them. Late Monday, the United Nations Security Council strongly condemned the Iranian attack on the Saudi embassy without mentioning the execution of Nimr, and Iran vowed in a letter to the U.N. that it will find and punish those who carried out the attack.
The Saudis "knew we couldn't look the other way,” Fazel Meybodi, a cleric from the Iranian holy city of Qum, told The New York Times. “Saudi Arabia killed Mr. al-Nimr at this sensitive juncture in time to widen the gap between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.... Unfortunately they had predicted our overreaction, and now they are using it against us to try to isolate Iran once again."
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The diplomatic spat, at a time when Iran was supposed to be basking in normalizing relations and unfrozen billions tied to the nuclear deal, is seen favoring Iranian hard-liners over the more moderate faction led by President Hassan Rouhani in February elections. On Tuesday, Rouhani accused the Saudis of taking its "strange action and cut off its diplomatic relation... to cover its crimes of beheading a religious leader in its country." Undoubtedly, he added, "such actions can't cover up that big crime."
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