This is one of those incidents which both cannot be understood in isolation and has the real possibility of escalating.

Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including a prominent Shia cleric:

The Middle East braced for sectarian violence Saturday after Saudi Arabia said it had executed 47 prisoners, including a prominent Shiite cleric responsible for anti-government protests.

There were warnings of a backlash against the ruling Al Saud family after Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was named on list of prisoners carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

Al-Nimr was a central figure in protests that erupted in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, and his execution may spark new unrest among the oil powerhouse’s Shiite minority.

This was not just typical Saudi brutality, it also was a reaction to Iran’s relentless use of local Shia communities throughout the Gulf States and indeed throughout the Middle East to foment trouble for local Sunnis. So the executions don’t stand in isolation.

The Iranian reaction was, typically, to set the mobs loose in Tehran:

Iranian protesters ransacked and set fire to part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Saturday after Saudi Arabia executed an outspoken Shiite cleric who had criticized the kingdom’s treatment of its Shiite minority.

Protesters broke furniture and smashed windows in an annex to the embassy, said a witness who was reached by telephone from Tehran. The protesters also set fire to the room, said the witness, who would provide only his first name, Abolfazl, because he had been involved in the protest.

The police arrived and cleared the embassy grounds of protesters and extinguished the fire, he said.

This video purports to show part of the attack:

The State Department expressed “concern” about the executions and possible escalation:

We have seen the Saudi government’s announcement that it executed 47 people.

We have previously expressed our concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia and have frequently raised these concerns at high levels of the Saudi Government. We reaffirm our calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights, and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases.

The United States also urges the Government of Saudi Arabia to permit peaceful expression of dissent and to work together with all community leaders to defuse tensions in the wake of these executions.‎

We are particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.

In this context, we reiterate the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions.

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The Supreme Ayatollah’s Twitter account has been active:

[Featured image via @ianbremmer]