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Executions Escalate Tension Between Saudi Arabia And Iran


The long-standing hostility between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran heated up over the weekend. Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with its Persian Gulf neighbor after a mob overran and set fire to Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran. The Iranian protesters were angry at the execution by the Saudi government of 47 people, including a prominent Shiite cleric. For more on what this could mean for the region, we spoke with Thomas Erdbrink, Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times. Welcome back to the program.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the Saudi's say that most of those executed were Islamist extremists - terrorists they call them. But beyond that, several of those executed were Shiite who have been critical of the Saudi government, including this cleric. How did he get caught up in this?

ERDBRINK: Well, as you said, Iran is a Shiite country. And Iranian leadership has, over the past year, been warning Saudi Arabia not to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Now, this man is a very well-known opposition leader in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia where most people are actually Shia. They are a minority in Sunni Saudi Arabia. And the Iranian leadership has been saying to the Saudis that if they would execute Mr. al-Nimr, it would be an attack not only on the Shiites of Saudi Arabia but also on Iran. And this has led to the events we have seen unfolding over the weekend - the attacking of the Saudi mission here in Tehran and also its consulate in the east of Iran.

MONTAGNE: Well, this break would seem to have implications way beyond both of those countries because they are engaged in several of the wars on opposite sides that are now burning there in the Middle East, especially Syria.

ERDBRINK: Exactly. These countries have gone head-to-head in several arenas in the region. And the most important one is of course Syria, where the Saudis are supporting some of the Sunni extremist groups that are fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's government that in turn is being supported by Iran. Well, the same goes for Yemen, which is another theater of this increasing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So as this fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran is increasing, it's clear that also the original wars will also enter possibly a new, more harsher state.

MONTAGNE: In particular, what about the peace talks, though, that are due to start up just weeks from now where it was pretty key to get both Saudi Arabia and Iran at the table?

ERDBRINK: Exactly. It has taken years to get Saudi Arabia and the United States to agree that Iran would also take place at that table. The Iranians are now at the table. And now I think the whole world is watching what the Saudis will do. Maybe they will decide not to join the peace talks because Iran is there. It seems that they are playing this brinkmanship game in which they are forcing countries to choose either between Saudi or Iran. And the fact that they have colorful relations and that they are most probably also asking other Persian Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates and possibly Kuwait to do the same shows that the Saudis want to get other people on board with their anti-Iranian line. And we could see the same in those peace talks.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: That's New York Times Tehran Bureau Chief Thomas Erdbrink. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.