BEIRUT — Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in severing diplomatic relations with Iran on Monday as the worst crisis in three decades between the region’s rival Sunni and Shiite powers drew worldwide expressions of alarm.
Russia offered to mediate in the feud and China was among the nations expressing concern at the implications of the rupture, which was touched off by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and is rapidly polarizing the already splintered region.
Iran warned Saudi Arabia made a “strategic mistake” that could only further divide the region and fuel militancy during crucial battles against the Islamic State and efforts to end Syria’s civil war. In further signs of spillover, sectarian violence flared in Iraq, and financial markets dropped sharply.
The Gulf nation of Bahrain—a close Saudi ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet—ordered Iranian diplomats to leave within 48 hours. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, recalled its ambassador from Tehran in a downgrading of diplomatic ties to focus mainly on commerical affairs. Dubai is the base for many Iranian businesses.
The moves could boost pressure on other Gulf Arab nations to also take some diplomatic action against Iran.
Global financial markets also were roiled by the deepening tensions between OPEC powers. Asia markets plunged on a mix of worries over the Middle East impasse and weak Chinese manufacturing data.
Saudi Arabia cited the “hostile” comments made by Iran in the wake of the execution by the Saudi authorities on Saturday of a prominent Shiite cleric, as well as the subsequent attack on its embassy in Tehran for the decision to expel Iranian diplomats.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair told reporters in Riyadh late Sunday that the diplomats had been given 48 hours to leave the country. Saudi Arabian diplomats had already departed Iran after angry crowds ransacked and burned the Saudi embassy in Tehran overnight Saturday, in retaliation for the execution of the cleric, Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, earlier in the day.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdolahian suggested Saudi Arabia had engineered the diplomatic break to eclipse the “strategic mistake” it made by executing Nimr. He accused the kingdom of “hasty and ill-considered approaches” that would only advance extremism and terrorism.
The rupture sets the region’s two biggest powerhouses on a collision course at a critical time for U.S.-led diplomacy in the Middle East, and raised the specter of worsening violence in the countries where they back rival factions, such as Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry said three Sunni mosques were attacked with bombs overnight in the Shiite majority province of Babil south of Baghdad, in one sign of the rising tensions. There were no casualties because they were empty at the time.
Despite their countless international feuds, it was the first time since a two-year break in 1988-1990 that diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia had formally been severed, according to Abdullah al-Shamri, a Saudi analyst and former diplomat.
China was among the countries expressing concern at the meltdown, urging the two parties “to maintain calm and restraint,” and Russia has offered its services as a mediator between the two countries, according to Russian news agencies.
Nimr was among 47 people put to death on the biggest single day of executions in Saudi Arabia since 1980, but he was only one of four Shiite Muslims among the group—and by far the best known. Most of the others were Sunnis accused of carrying out a spate of attacks linked to the Sunni al-Qaida organization over a decade ago.
Nimr’s role as a leader in the anti-government protests that swept the Shiite eastern regions of Saudi Arabia nearly five years ago ensured both that his death sentence would be carried out, and that there would be an enraged response from Shiites across the region.
In tough comments Sunday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted “divine retribution” for Nimr’s executioners, saying that the execution “will cause serious troubles for the politicians of this [Saudi] regime in a very short time.”
Saudi Arabia responded with an angry statement pointing out that Iran is often accused by the international community of supporting terrorism and of executing large numbers of people.
Iran “is the last regime in the world that could accuse others of supporting terrorism,” said a Foreign Ministry statement reported by the official Saudi news agency.
Iran carried out 694 executions in the first half of last year, according to an Amnesty International statement in July. Saudi Arabia, whose population is about a third the size of Iran’s, carried out 157 in all of 2015, according to Amnesty and media reports.
Beyond the invocations of divine justice, however, Iran made no specific threats of retaliation, and Iranian leaders ordered a halt to attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities after the assaults on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad late Saturday.
But the furor went deeper than the execution of a single cleric, striking at the heart of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has fueled, though not caused, much of the conflict engulfing the region.
Encouraged by Washington and by the regional realignment underway in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program, the two rivals had been tentatively exploring closer ties, and it is unclear whether Saudi Arabia intended such a rupture when it carried out the death penalty against Nimr.
The execution is in keeping with the newly aggressive stance adopted by King Salman, who has worn the crown for a little less than a year since the death of his half-brother, Abdullah, and it sent a powerful message that Saudi Arabia is intent on standing up to its regional rival, said Theodore Karasik of Gulf State Analytics, a consulting group.
“The Saudis hope to demonstrate that they are on the offensive in terms of the Sunni-Shiite divide, and they have just upped the ante on that significantly,” he said.