Iran bans its citizens from haj
LONDON - Saudi-Iranian relations deteriorated further after Tehran banned its citizens from taking part in the haj pilgrimage to Mecca, the first time ihas done so since the 1980s.
The spat between the two regional rivals came about after months of pilgrimage-related negotiations between Riyadh and Tehran, particularly regarding Iranian pilgrims obtaining visas. 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.
Iranian authorities on June 2nd officially announced they would not allow Iranians to participate in the annual Muslim event, citing a number of reasons, from security to an inability to obtain visas in Iran.
Despite Tehran’s refusal to send pilgrims this year, Saeed Ohadi, head of Iran’s Haj and Pilgrimage Organisation, said, “Saudi Arabia knows it will pay a heavy price for depriving pilgrims” from Iran of the chance to perform the haj.
The Head of the Public Court in the Saudi Medina region Saleh bin Abdulrahman Mohaimeed accused Iran of hidden motives.
“The Iranian haj organisation’s refusal to sign the minutes of the haj arrangements shows an intent of distorting the rite of haj and politicising it before its own people and the world,” Mohaimeed said in a statement.
In a news conference after meeting with his British counterpart, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al- Jubeir labelled Tehran’s motivations as political and unacceptable.
Jubeir said Iran refused to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that the more than 70 countries participating in the annual religious event are required to do “to guarantee the security and safety of pilgrims”.
He stressed that, despite the kingdom accommodating a number of demands from the Iranian haj committee, Tehran refused to sign the agreement.
“They had requests for visas to be granted to the Iranians through the internet and it was done. They demanded to transfer their pilgrims by Iran’s national carrier and they asked to have a representative and the kingdom agreed on it,” Jubeir said.
“This is evidence of the kingdom’s keenness to facilitate the needs of the pilgrims and enable them to perform their rituals. However, they refused to sign the agreement organising the affairs of the pilgrims,” he added.
The Saudi Haj and Umrah Ministry said in a statement that the Iranians demanded to be able to have their own rituals, including protests and chants of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”.
A stampede during the haj last year resulted in the death of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims. Tehran blamed the tragedy on Saudi authorities.
Relations soured during the 1987 haj when Iranian pilgrims staged a political demonstration in Mecca and clashed with Saudi 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, after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the revelation of Tehran’s nuclear programme and the election of hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, relations dived.
Tensions reached heights in 2011 when the United States uncovered a plot to assassinate Jubeir, who was then the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are embroiled 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.