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Could This Mean War? Fallout over Cleric's Execution Continues


New tensions are escalating in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia put to death a prominent cleric.

Saudi Arabia announced the execution of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday. He was killed along with 46 others, including Saudi dissidents and members of al Qaeda.

Now the Saudis and Iran have cut diplomatic ties as the divide between the two Islamic powers grows deeper. Some wonder if it could lead to war between the two rivals.

Al-Nimr's death has sparked protests from Shiite Muslims around the world.

One demonstration in Kashmir, India, turned violent, while others, like one in Beirut, Lebanon, were more sedate. But the message was clear: Saudi Arabia's execution of al-Nimr was a crime against humanity.

Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah condemned the execution, saying the Saudi monarchy is a terrorist dictatorship.

But the biggest protest occurred in Tehran, Iran, where demonstrators stormed and set fire to the Saudi embassy.

"God has promised to get revenge over spilled blood of the innocent. When time passes, the House of Saud will certainly understand that al-Nimr's blood will catch up with those who executed him," protester Ali Naeemi said.

Others set fire to an American flag and said they believe the House of Saud will be overthrown by ISIS or Islamic countries.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani denounced the execution, calling it "anti-Islamic" and "anti-human."

An Iranian government judicial spokesman said some of those who stormed the Saudi embassy have been arrested and jailed.

The Iranians say the Saudis executed the sheik because he was an outspoken critic of the monarchy and called for human rights for Saudi Arabia's Shiite minority. 

The Saudis, however, say he was a terrorist who advocated violence and the overthrow of the monarchy.

So, what might all of this mean for the United States and the rest of the world? For now, it may mean peace efforts to end the Saudi and Iranian proxy wars in Syria and Yemen will likely stall. The two countries are supporting opposing sides in both of those countries.

Aaron David Miller, vice president of New Initiatives for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, cautioned that the clash will be reflected on the ground.

"The Iranians will probably go beyond rhetoric, intensifying their support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and perhaps even trying to foment protests and insurgencies, perhaps even in Bahrain among the Shia majority there against the Sunni King and in Saudi Arabia in the al Hasa province," he said.

As Muslim clerics attended al-Nimr's funeral this past weekend, the White House released a statement condemning his execution.

President Barack Obama chose not to comment on escalating Middle East tensions as he and his family returned to Washington from their Hawaii vacation.

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