Hostile rhetoric escalates between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Sunday 11/09/2016
Muslim pilgrim praying at Mount Al-Noor

LONDON - Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran inten­sified with an ugly ex­change involving Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatol­lah Ali Khamenei and Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh.
Khamenei, in a statement Sep­tember 5th, accused the kingdom in last year’s haj stampede and la­belled Saudi authorities unfit to oversee the annual event, which is one of the five main pillars of Islam.
On September 24th, 2015, more than 2,000 people, including an estimated 450 Iranians, died in a stampede in Mina, independent sources said. The death count from Saudi officials was 769.
Khamenei’s statement, which was seen by many as an attempt to politicise the haj, called on Muslim countries to “fundamentally recon­sider” management of the pilgrim­age.
Al-Sheikh strongly rebuked Khamenei and the Iranian regime, calling them enemies of the Islamic religion.
In comments carried by the Jed­dah-based Arab News, Al-Sheikh said: “We have to understand that they are not Muslims. They are the followers of majus (a reference to Zoroastrians who worship fire). Their enmity towards Muslims is old and their main enemies are the followers of Sunnah.”
Tehran in June banned its citi­zens from taking part in the haj, the first time it had done so since the 1980s.
The decision by the Islamic Re­public came after months of negoti­ations between Riyadh and Tehran. When Iranian authorities officially announced they would not allow Iranians to participate in the annual Muslim event, they cited a number of reasons, from security to an in­ability to obtain visas in Iran.
The recent comments by Khame­nei prompted angry reactions from Gulf officials including Gulf Coop­eration Council (GCC) Secretary- General Abdul Latif al-Zayani, who denounced the “false and disgrace­ful charges” against Saudi Arabia.
Zayani’s statement said GCC countries should consider Iran’s allegations a public incitement “in a desperate bid to politicise this major annual Islamic convergence that brings together pilgrims from all over the world during blessed days on the land of the Two Holy Mosques”.
The statement added that Iran’s hostile campaigns included false allegations contrary to the values and principles of the true Islamic religion, which promotes compas­sion, amity and brotherliness.
In a September 7th news con­ference in London, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir also accused Iran of politicising the haj. Jubeir said the Iranians’ motivation was to achieve political gains and divert attention from its internal prob­lems.
Egypt’s most influential Islamic body rejected Iranian calls for joint management of the haj, suggesting that such calls would cause “sedi­tion” in the Muslim world.
“We confirm our vehement rejec­tion of calls by some regional pow­ers to internationalise the manage­ment of the two holy mosques in the sacred [Saudi] lands,” al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars said in a statement.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the one responsible for organising the haj affairs without any foreign interference. This bizarre sugges­tion is a new door for sedition, which must be closed,” it said.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia date to the days of the shah but relations had been compara­tively cordial. They worsened after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, which saw Saudi Arabia and the United States warily back Iraqi dic­tator Saddam Hussein.
In 1987, tensions escalated dur­ing the haj when Iranians in Mecca staged a political demonstration and clashed with Saudi riot police. More than 400 people died in the incident and mobs attacked the missions of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and France.
Diplomatic ties were cut in 1988 but were restored two years later.
The 1990s was a period of relative calm between Riyadh and Tehran, particularly during the presidency of Iranian reformist Mohammad Khatami. However, with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the revelation of Tehran’s nuclear programme and the election of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, relations nose-dived.
Tensions escalated in 2011 when the United States uncovered an as­sassination plot against Jubeir, who was then the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are on op­posite sides of a number of regional conflicts. In the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia is backing rebels fight­ing Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is militarily supported by the Islamic Republic and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition is at war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in an effort to restore the in­ternationally recognised Yemeni government to power.
The kingdom broke off official ties with Iran in January after its diplomatic missions were attacked by mobs following the execution in Saudi Arabia of a radical Shia cleric convicted on terrorism charges.