Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday after their embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital, was set alight.
The fire came as a part of a broader set of protests across the Shia Islamic world in response to the execution of one of its most outspoken clerics, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, by Saudi Arabia, a Sunni dominate state.
The former had been a vocal critic of the Saudi and other gulf states and their policies towards their Shia minorities until his arrest in 2012. Saudi authorities convicted him in a show trial on terrorism related charges after he came out in support of non-violent anti-regime protests.
So far David Gauke, the UK’s Treasury secretary, is the most senior British figure to comment on the execution, saying, ineffectually, that it was a worrying development. The US state department said it risked “exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”
The severing of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran signals an escalation in tensions between the two, who are already actively engaged in two proxy wars in the region—in Yemen and in Syria.
The conflict is unlikely to evolve into direct confrontation but any move away from conciliation and diplomacy is bad for the region, as it is for those who wish to see an end to the fighting there.
Fortunately, the attack on the embassy appears not to have been state sanctioned, with Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, denouncing the actions of those responsible and calling for their arrest.
He made clear his determination not to let “rogue elements” take “illegal actions that damage the dignity” of the Islamic Republic. “I call on the interior minister to identify the perpetrators of this attack… so there will be an end to such appalling actions once and for all” he said.
Whatever optimism the President’s restraint might have inspired, however, is outweighed by the Saudi King’s willingness to escalate. This is bad news for the Middle East.