Iran on Thursday accused the Saudi-led coalition battling Shiite rebels in Yemen of hitting its embassy in the capital, Sanaa, in an overnight airstrike, but there were no visible signs of damage on the building.
The accusation comes amid a dangerous rise in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in recent days, following the kingdom’s execution of a Shiite cleric and attacks on Saudi diplomatic posts in the Islamic Republic.
Analysts have feared the dispute could boil over into the proxy wars between the two Mideast rivals in Yemen and in Syria.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s eastern Shiite heartland prepared to hold a service Thursday night to honor the executed Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. That could spark further unrest, as witnesses in eastern Saudi towns have reported hearing gunfire overnight and armored personnel carriers have been seen driving through neighborhood streets.
On Thursday afternoon, Iran’s state-run news agency said a Saudi-led airstrike the previous night hit the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, citing Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman. However, an Associated Press reporter who reached the site just after the announcement saw no damage to the building.
Saudi officials could not immediately be reached for comment on the Iranian claims, though the kingdom’s deputy crown prince, widely thought to wield considerable power in the monarchy, said he didn’t believe war would break out with Iran.
“It is something that we do not foresee at all, and whoever is pushing towards that is somebody who is not in their right mind,” Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi defense minister and 30-year-old son of King Salman, told The Economist magazine. “Because a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region. … For sure we will not allow any such thing.”
The diplomatic standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia began on Saturday, when the kingdom executed al-Nimr and 46 others convicted of terror charges — the largest mass execution it has carried out since 1980. Al-Nimr was a staunch critic of the Saudi government and demanded greater rights for the kingdom’s Shiite population, but always denied advocating violence.
Iranian protesters responded by attacking the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. Late Sunday, Saudi Arabia announced it was severing relations with Iran because of the assaults. On Wednesday, Iranian diplomats in Saudi Arabia returned to Tehran, according to state media.
Since Saudi Arabia severed ties to Iran, a host of its allies have cut or reduced their ties as well.
On Thursday, Somalia joined Saudi allies such as Bahrain and Sudan and entirely cut diplomatic ties with Iran. The Somali Foreign Ministry said it recalled its acting ambassador to Tehran and ordered Iranian diplomats to leave Somalia within 72 hours over “Iran’s continuous interference in Somalia’s internal affairs.”
In eastern Saudi Arabia, the home of al-Nimr and much of the kingdom’s roughly 10 to 15 percent Shiite population, three days of mourning over his death ended Wednesday night. Mohammed al-Nimr, the sheikh’s brother, said people planned to hold a service Thursday for the cleric, though Saudi authorities had already buried his corpse in an undisclosed cemetery.
There are concerns new unrest could erupt. Al-Nimr’s brother, as well as another local resident of al-Awamiya in eastern Saudi Arabia, said they’ve heard gunfire on recent nights.
The local resident, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety, shared a mobile phone video showing Saudi armored personnel carriers traveling through local streets.
More than 1,040 people were detained in Shiite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia between February 2011 and August 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. That watchdog and others have alleged that Saudi officials discriminate against the Shiites by rarely allowing them to build mosques and limiting their access to public education, government employment and the justice system.
Speaking to The Economist, Prince Mohammed defended al-Nimr’s execution.
“The court did not, at all, make any distinction between whether or not a person is Shiite or Sunni,” the prince said in the interview published online Thursday night. “They are reviewing a crime, and a procedure, and a trial, and a sentence and carrying out the sentence.”
However, many ultraconservatives of the Saudi Wahhabi school of Islam view Shiites as heretics.
Also Thursday, Iran banned the import of goods from Saudi Arabia over the tensions, according to a report by Iranian state television. It said the decision came during an emergency meeting of the Cabinet of President Hassan Rouhani.
Iran’s annual exports to Saudi Arabia are worth about $130 million a year and are mainly steel, cement and agricultural products. Iran’s annual imports from Saudi Arabia total about $60 million a year and consisted mostly of packing materials and textiles.
In other developments, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir arrived in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, for meetings with Pakistani leaders. Pakistan, which is a predominantly Sunni Muslim state but has a large Shiite minority, has expressed hope that Saudi Arabia and Iran will be able to normalize their relations.
SOURCE: The Associated Press, Nasser Karimi and Ahmed Al-Haj