Iran predicts 'divine vengeance' after Saudis execute Shiite cleric

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Saudi Arabia: Top Shia Cleric Among 47 Executed

DUBAI/RIYADH, Jan 3 (Reuters) -- Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran early on Sunday and Shi'ite Muslim Iran's top leader predicted "divine vengeance" for Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

Strong rhetoric from Tehran was matched by Iran's Shi'ite allies across the region, with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanese militia Hezbollah, describing the execution as "a message of blood." Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, called for angry protests.

Tensions between revolutionary, mainly Shi'ite Iran and Saudi Arabia's conservative Sunni monarchy had already run high for years as they backed opposing forces in wars and political conflicts across the Middle East, usually along sectarian lines.

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Iran predicts 'divine vengeance' after Saudis execute Shiite cleric
Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016. Nimr was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in Saudi Arabia's east, an oil-rich region where the Shiite minority of an estimated two million people complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE / AFP / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016. Nimr was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in Saudi Arabia's east, an oil-rich region where the Shiite minority of an estimated two million people complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE / AFP / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016. Nimr was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in Saudi Arabia's east, an oil-rich region where the Shiite minority of an estimated two million people complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE / AFP / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016. Nimr was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in Saudi Arabia's east, an oil-rich region where the Shiite minority of an estimated two million people complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE / AFP / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016. Nimr was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in Saudi Arabia's east, an oil-rich region where the Shiite minority of an estimated two million people complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE / AFP / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian security stand guard to protect Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran, Iran, while a group of demonstrators gathered to protest execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iranian security stand guard to protect Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran, Iran, while a group of demonstrators gathered to protest execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iranian security stand guard to protect Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran, Iran, while a group of demonstrators gathered to protest execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iranian security stand guard to protect Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran, Iran, while a group of demonstrators gathered to protest execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Bahraini anti-government protesters carry a palm tree trunk to block a street from police during a demonstration against Saudi Arabia's execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, in Daih, Bahrain, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016. Saudi Arabia announced Saturday it had executed 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism charges, including al-Qaida detainees and al-Nimr, who rallied protests against the Saudi government. The execution of al-Nimr is expected to deepen discontent among Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority and heighten sectarian tensions across the region. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
A Bahraini anti-government protester holds up a picture of Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, whose execution in Saudi Arabia was announced Saturday, during a peaceful demonstration in Daih, Bahrain, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016. Saudi Arabia announced Saturday it had executed 47 prisoners convicted of terrorism charges, including al-Qaida detainees and al-Nimr, who rallied protests against the Saudi government. The execution of al-Nimr is expected to deepen discontent among Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority and heighten sectarian tensions across the region. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
A Kashmiri Shiite Muslim shouts slogans as police stop them during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
A Kashmiri Shiite Muslim and a policeman argue during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
A Kashmiri Shiite Muslim throws stones on Indian policemen during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
An Indian police officer fires tear smoke shell on Shiite Muslim protestors as they protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
Kashmiri Shiite Muslim protestors take cover as a tear smoke shell explodes during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
Kashmiri Shiite Muslim protestors throw stones on Indian policemen during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
A tear smoke shell explodes near Kashmiri Shiite Muslim protestors during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
Indian policemen beat Kashmiri Shiite Muslim protestors during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
A young Kashmiri Shiite Muslim boy is lifted by others as they shout slogans during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
Kashmiri Shiite Muslim protestors take cover as a tear smoke shell explodes during a protest against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
Indian policemen clear blockades on a road during a protest by Shiite Muslims against Saudi Arabia in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Indian police used tear smoke and rubber bullets to disperse Shiite Muslims who were protesting after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday along with 46 others, including three other Shiite dissidents and a number of al-Qaida militants. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
A plain clothes Indian security official walks past burning material set light by Kashmiri Shiite protesters during a demonstration in Srinagar on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia on January 2, executed 47 people convicted of 'terrorism', including a prominent Shiite cleric behind anti-government protests, the interior ministry said. The cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shiite minority complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP / TAUSEEF MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Kashmiri Shiite protesters shout slogans as they run from teargas smoke during a demonstration in Srinagar on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia on January 2, executed 47 people convicted of 'terrorism', including a prominent Shiite cleric behind anti-government protests, the interior ministry said. The cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shiite minority complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP / TAUSEEF MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kashmiri Shiite protesters kicks a smoking teargas shell during a demonstration in Srinagar on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia on January 2, executed 47 people convicted of 'terrorism', including a prominent Shiite cleric behind anti-government protests, the interior ministry said. The cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shiite minority complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP / TAUSEEF MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
Kashmiri Shiite protesters take cover as a teargas shell explodes during a demonstration in Srinagar on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia on January 2, executed 47 people convicted of 'terrorism', including a prominent Shiite cleric behind anti-government protests, the interior ministry said. The cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shiite minority complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP / TAUSEEF MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
Kashmiri Shiite protesters shout slogans as teargas clouds hang in the air during a demonstration in Srinagar on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia on January 2, executed 47 people convicted of 'terrorism', including a prominent Shiite cleric behind anti-government protests, the interior ministry said. The cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shiite minority complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP / TAUSEEF MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi policeman mans a checkpoint next to a poster mourning prominent Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in Saudi Arabia the day before, in the capital Baghdad on January 3, 2016. The execution of prominent Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr is an 'aggression', Iraq's top Shiite authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in a statement. AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARAR / AFP / SABAH ARAR (Photo credit should read SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Kashmiri Shiite protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Srinagar on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia on January 2, executed 47 people convicted of 'terrorism', including a prominent Shiite cleric behind anti-government protests, the interior ministry said. The cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was a driving force of the protests that broke out in 2011 in the Sunni-ruled kingdom's east, where the Shiite minority complains of marginalisation. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP / TAUSEEF MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani Shiite Muslims march during a protest in Islamabad on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia's execution of a leading Shiite cleric reflects an assertive but risky new approach that threatens to escalate its proxy wars with arch-rival Iran in Syria and Yemen, experts said. AFP PHOTO / Farooq NAEEM / AFP / FAROOQ NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani Shiite Muslims march during a protest in Islamabad on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia's execution of a leading Shiite cleric reflects an assertive but risky new approach that threatens to escalate its proxy wars with arch-rival Iran in Syria and Yemen, experts said. AFP PHOTO / Farooq NAEEM / AFP / FAROOQ NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani Shiite Muslims march during a protest in Islamabad on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia's execution of a leading Shiite cleric reflects an assertive but risky new approach that threatens to escalate its proxy wars with arch-rival Iran in Syria and Yemen, experts said. AFP PHOTO / Farooq NAEEM / AFP / FAROOQ NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani Shiite Muslims march during a protest in Islamabad on January 3, 2016, against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia's execution of a leading Shiite cleric reflects an assertive but risky new approach that threatens to escalate its proxy wars with arch-rival Iran in Syria and Yemen, experts said. AFP PHOTO / Farooq NAEEM / AFP / FAROOQ NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)
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Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran early on Sunday and Shi'ite Muslim Iran's top leader predicted "divine vengeance" for Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

Strong rhetoric from Tehran was matched by Iran's Shi'ite allies across the region, with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanese militia Hezbollah, describing the execution as "a message of blood." Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, called for angry protests.

Tensions between revolutionary, mainly Shi'ite Iran and Saudi Arabia's conservative Sunni monarchy had already run high for years as they backed opposing forces in wars and political conflicts across the Middle East, usually along sectarian lines.

However, Saturday's execution of a cleric whose death Iran had warned would "cost Saudi Arabia dearly," and the storming of the kingdom's Tehran embassy, raised the pitch of that rivalry.

Demonstrators protesting against the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr broke into the embassy building, smashed furniture and started fires before being ejected by police.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani condemned the execution as "inhuman," but also urged the prosecution of "extremist individuals" for attacking the embassy and the Saudi consulate in the northeastern city of Mashhad, state media reported.

Tehran's police chief said an unspecified number of "unruly elements" were arrested for attacking the embassy with petrol bombs and rocks. A prosecutor said 40 people were held.

"The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians," Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying by Iran's state television.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards had promised "harsh revenge" against the Saudi Sunni royal dynasty for the execution of Nimr, considered a terrorist by Riyadh but hailed in Iran as a hero of the rights of Saudi Arabia's marginalized Shi'ite minority.

However the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers told Austria they have no interest in a further of heightening tensions between them, a spokesman for Austria's Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said.

Protesters in London Demonstrate Against Saudi Executions

PROTESTS

Nimr, the most vocal critic of the dynasty among the Shi'ite minority, had come to be seen as a leader of the sect's younger activists, who had tired of the failure of older, more measured leaders to achieve equality with Sunnis.

His execution sparked angry protests in the Qatif region in eastern Saudi Arabia, where demonstrators denounced the ruling Al Saud dynasty, and in the nearby Gulf kingdom of Bahrain.

Relatives of Nimr, reached by telephone, said authorities have informed them that the body had been buried "in a cemetery of Muslims" and would not be handed over to the family.

Although most of the 47 men killed in the kingdom's biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago, it was Nimr and three other Shi'ites, all accused of involvement in shooting police, who attracted most attention in the region and beyond.

Khamenei's website carried a picture of a Saudi executioner next to notorious Islamic State executioner 'Jihadi John', with the caption "Any differences?". The Revolutionary Guards said "harsh revenge" would topple "this pro-terrorist, anti-Islamic regime."

Saudi Arabia on Saturday summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest what it described as hostile remarks emerging from Tehran. On Sunday, Riyadh's Gulf allies the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain also summoned Tehran's envoys to their countries to lodge complaints.

IRAQ ALSO FURIOUS

In Iraq, whose Shi'ite-led government is close to Iran, religious and political figures demanded that ties with Riyadh be severed, calling into question Saudi attempts to forge a regional alliance against Islamic State, which controls swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani described the executions as an "unjust aggression." The opinion of Sistani, based in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad, carries weight with millions of Shi'ites in Iraq and across the region, including in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the focus on Nimr, the executions seemed mostly aimed at discouraging jihadism in Saudi Arabia, where dozens have died in the past year in attacks by Sunni militants.

But Saudi Arabia's Western allies, many of whom supply it with arms, are growing concerned about its new assertiveness.

The U.S. State Department said Nimr's execution "risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced," a sentiment echoed by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. The State Department also urged Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights.

France said on Sunday it deeply deplored the mass execution and said it reiterated its opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances.

In Istanbul, hundreds of protesters, some carrying pictures of Nimr and chanting "Saudi Arabia will pay the price," gathered outside its consulate on Sunday as riot police stood guard.

The four Shi'ites had been convicted of involvement in shootings and petrol bomb attacks that killed several police during anti-government protests from 2011-13. More than 20 Shi'ites were shot dead by the authorities in those protests.

Family members of the executed Shi'ites have denied they were involved in attacks and said they were only peaceful protesters against sectarian discrimination.

Human rights groups say the kingdom's judicial process is unfair, pointing to accusations that confessions have been secured under torture and that defendants in court have been denied access to lawyers. Riyadh denies torture and says its judiciary is independent.

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