‘Without a doubt, the unlawfully shed blood of this innocent martyr will have a rapid effect and the divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians.”
That was how Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, responded to Saudi Arabia’s execution Saturday of a Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. Since then, Iranian protesters have — with their government’s permission — attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Saudi Arabia has cut diplomatic relations. Further escalation is likely. Nimr al-Nimr wasn’t just any Saudi cleric. As I explained last year, he was a transnational representative of Shiite populism against Saudi oppression. But where the cleric was a powerful political activist in life, his execution makes him a martyr: a divine embodiment of Shiite theology and politics. To Shiite observers, Nimr al-Nimr’s execution echoes that of the ultimate Shiite martyr, Husayn ibn-Ali, at the seventh-century Battle of Karbala.
But Iran isn’t alone in threatening retaliation. Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki — who is engaged in a never-ending power struggle in Baghdad — warned that the execution would bring down the Saudi royal family. This political reaction reflects the deep scale of Shiite populist anger and illuminates the risk of unrestrained escalation. Other actors, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, are reacting with fury as well.