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Iran lobbies to revoke Saudi Shiite cleric's death sentence

The death sentence for sedition of Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr poses another obstacle for President Hassan Rouhani's administration in easing tensions with rival Saudi Arabia.
A Shi'ite protester carries a poster of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration outside the Saudi embassy in Sanaa October 18, 2014. The Shi'ite Muslim minority in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province have long felt marginalised by the Sunni ruling dynasty, and protests for greater rights as part of the 2011 Arab Spring brought a crackdown on both protesters and demands for reform. But now, death sentences for three Shi'ite Muslims, including prominent dissident cleric Nimr, suggest that the region's wider tu

On Oct. 15, Sheikh Nimr Bagher al-Nimr, a dissident Saudi Shiite cleric, was sentenced to death for sedition. The death sentence, which has the potential to further inflame sectarian tensions in the Middle East, has put the Hassan Rouhani administration on the defensive domestically. Rouhani, who with Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been lobbying for closer ties with Saudi Arabia, must face down conservative figures who have adopted a harsher tone against Saudi Arabia and are not looking toward a détente with the regional rival.

When Nimr’s death sentence was announced, it was harshly condemned by a number of conservative religious clerics in Iran. Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani said, "Saudi princes should not assume that the protests will come to an end with the execution of Sheikh Nimr." Ayatollah Mohammad Alavi Gorgani said, “It is unfortunate that the Saudi regime is treating its citizens with hostility instead of giving them justice." Ayatollah Hossein Nuri-Hamadani warned the Saudi officials that such sentences will upset Shiites around the world, and Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi also warned that such actions would have "unpredictable results."

Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani met with Rouhani's chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, and asked the administration to work toward revoking this sentence. "Our foreign minister, [Mohammad Javad] Zarif, should act upon this matter immediately,” he said. “He should remind the Saudi government that this sentence has hurt the feelings of Muslims and Muslim clerics alike, and he should also remind them that such cruel actions will have consequences."

Rouhani, Zarif and Marzieh Afkham, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, have yet to officially address this issue. However, Hossein-Amir Abdollahian, the deputy foreign minister in charge of Arab and African relations told ISNA news agency, "We are hopeful that the Saudi officials will be pragmatic about this issue and, by preventing this sentence from being carried out, prevent tension from further escalating in the Muslim world."

Mohsen Kadivar, a famous religious dissident, currently a visiting professor of religious studies at Duke University in North Carolina — who has been arrested numerous times in Iran for writing critical articles for and giving interviews to Reformist publications — criticized the Saudi government for the sentencing during an interview with Al-Monitor. Kadivar said, "His execution will not solve any of the problems that the Saudi government is currently facing.” He added, “It will increase the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iraq."

There is hope, however, that Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran — who has friendly relations with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and leading Saudi princes — can prevent tension from further escalating between Tehran and Riyadh over Nimr’s death sentence.

In contrast to the conservative clerics, Rafsanjani wrote a friendly letter to the Saudi king. "At this juncture in time, when sedition has aimed to attack the very essence of the Islamic umma, revoking this sentence will disappoint those who desire to create division among the Muslims, will result in cooperation and will solve many problems in the Muslim world," he wrote.

It is no secret at this point that Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional rivals and bitterly oppose each other over a number of issues such as Iran's nuclear program, the civil war in Syria and the conflict in Iraq, as well as increasing tensions in Yemen, in addition to their long-held differences in Lebanon. Decreasing tensions in the region, which is something those who voted for Rouhani wanted, will eventually need the cooperation of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Given his history and personal relationships, many believe that Rafsanjani is key to decreasing tensions with Saudi Arabia. The relationship between Rafsanjani and the Saudi king is friendly enough that on April 21 the newly appointed ambassador of Saudi Arabia, Abdulrahman Bin Groman Shahri, attended the meeting of the Expediency Discernment Council and invited Rafsanjani to visit Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi ambassador kissed Rafsanjani on the forehead, talked about Rafsanjani’s positive place among Saudi Arabians and asked for better relations between Riyadh and Tehran. This request was repeated by Rafsanjani who said, “We should try to set an example for cooperation in the Muslim world during our own lifetimes.”

Kadivar called Rafsanjani’s letter a “moral and humanitarian act.” Taghi Rahmani, a religious intellectual and a member of the Nationalist-Religious Coalition of Iran — who said that both Saudi Arabia and Iran have a troubling record when it comes to their treatment of religious minorities — told Al-Monitor, “Rafsanjani always wanted to improve the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He believes that having a relationship with Saudi Arabia will benefit the region, Iran itself and will decrease the possibility of foreign interference in the region.”

During the past few days, the Reformist publications in Iran published unofficial reports about the king of Saudi Arabia revoking the death sentence of Nimr because of Rafsanjani’s letter, which in ways reflected their desire to see Saudi-Iranian tensions decreased.

A Reformist journalist who talked to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity said, "Our biggest fear is that if Sheikh Nimr is executed, it will end the possibility of a better relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Rouhani is genuinely interested in expanding the relations with Riyadh, but it will be impossible if this sentence is carried out."

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