The execution of an Islamic cleric by Saudi Arabia has sparked violent protests in Iran and halted diplomatic relations — but the Saudi foreign minister told CNBC on Tuesday that the man in question was "as much a religious scholar as Osama bin Laden."
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi minister of foreign affairs, added that "Iranians have got away with murder, literally, for more than 30 years," in the exclusive interview.
Cleric and sheikh, Nimr al-Nimr, was among 47 people put to death this weekend in Saudi Arabia for terrorism-related offences. His death prompted some Iranians to storm the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Sunday and the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to predict Saudi Arabia would suffer "divine vengeance."
Saudi Arabia has since cut diplomatic relations with Iran, with which it has long had a highly volatile relation.
Al-Jubeir insisted on Tuesday that al-Nimr was a terrorist that threatened his country's safety.
"Our response is that he is a terrorist. He is as much of a religious scholar as Osama bin Laden was," the 53-year-old foreign minister told CNBC in English.
"He was implicated in inciting people, recruiting people, providing weapons and munitions for people and he was involved in attacks against security people and police stations that led to the killing of the innocents."
Al-Nimr was a Saudi citizen and an outspoken leader for younger Shiite Muslims. Critics of Saudi Arabia say his real crime was denouncing the ruling dynasty and helping organize anti-government demonstrations. (Shia is one of the two major branches of Islam, with Iranians overwhelmingly Shiite and Saudis largely Sunni. Sunni Islam is the far larger of the sects, which have a long history of conflict in the Middle East.)
Al-Jubeir said that the cleric and the 46 others executed had received open and fair trials that had been through the courts of appeal and reviewed by the Saudi Supreme Court. He added that Iran's response to al-Nimr's execution was "very puzzling."
"The charges are clear, the convictions are clear and when the sentences were carried out — that was the end of it. The Kingdom of Saudi (Arabia) should be commended for showing resolve and taking a firm position against people who kill the innocent, not condemned for it. And as far as the Iranians are concerned, what I find very puzzling is this individual is a Saudi citizen, he committed a crime in Saudi Arabia, he was convicted in a Saudi court and the sentence was carried out by Saudi authorities. What does Iran have to do with this?" al-Jubeir told CNBC.
He added that Iran executed "hundreds of people" annually, actively supported terrorists and sowed conflict throughout the Middle East.
"They (Iran) execute hundreds of people every year; nobody says anything about it. This is their system, and so for the Iranians to inject themselves into our domestic affairs is in-line with what Iran has been doing for years throughout the region; in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Bahrain, in Yemen. They have been providing supplies for terrorists; they have been recruiting people; they have been assassinating people; they have been sowing sectarianism in the region, splitting the Islamic world. Their policies are in violation of all the norms and customs that the international community has been based on," al-Jubeir told CNBC.
Amnesty International has warned of an "unprecedented spike" in executions in Iran, which it says is the most prolific executioner in the world after China. It says that Iranian authorities are believed to have executed 694 people between January and July 15, 2015 alone.
By comparison, Saudi Arabia executed at least 151 people between January and November, according to Amnesty International. This amounted to its highest recorded number of executions in a single year since 1995, the campaigning group said.
The 47 executions over the weekend were one of the country's largest mass executions.
While Iran remains under international sanctions because of its nuclear-enrichment program, Saudi Arabia is viewed as an ally of the West in general and the U.S. in particular.
Al-Jubeir's comments will be of high interest to policymakers in Washington, where the Saudi foreign minister is well known. He was appointed foreign minister in April 2015 and has spent years at the forefront of U.S.-Saudi relations. He served as ambassador to the U.S. for eight years and has degrees from both Georgetown University and the University of North Texas, including an honorary doctorate. Al-Jubeir speaks German as well as fluent English and Arabic.