By Angus McDowall
RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia widened its rift with Iran on Monday, saying it would end air traffic and trade links with the Islamic republic and demanding that Tehran must “act like a normal country” before it would restore severed diplomatic relations.
Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters in an interview that Tehran was responsible for rising tensions after the kingdom executed Shi’ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, describing him as a terrorist.
Insisting Riyadh would react to “Iranian aggression”, Jubeir accused Tehran of despatching fighters to Arab countries and plotting attacks inside the kingdom and its Gulf neighbours.
“There is no escalation on the part of Saudi Arabia. Our moves are all reactive. It is the Iranians who went into Lebanon. It is the Iranians who sent their Qods Force and their Revolutionary Guards into Syria,” he said.
The execution of Nimr provoked protests among Shi’ites across the region and Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, setting fires and causing damage, prompting Riyadh to cut ties and inflaming an already heated rivalry.
Iranian pilgrims would still be welcome to visit Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina in western Saudi Arabia, either for the annual haj or at other times of year on the umrah pilgrimage, he said.
However, Jubeir said Saudi Arabia had been right to execute Nimr, whom he accused of “agitating, organising cells, providing them with weapons and money”. After listing the crimes of 43 al Qaeda members also put to death on Saturday alongside four Shi’ites, Jubeir said of the executions: “We should be applauded for this, not criticised.”
(Editing by William Maclean and David Stamp)