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Iran-Saudi War of Words Heats Up

by AFP
Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Fabrice Coffrini—AFP

Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Fabrice Coffrini—AFP

Rift widens as Iranians barred from attending annual haj pilgrimage for first time in decades.

A bitter war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensified on Wednesday ahead of the annual haj pilgrimage from which Iranians have been excluded for the first time in decades.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted the ‘incompetence’ of the Saudi royal family as he met with the families of victims of a deadly stampede during last year’s haj. “This incident proves once again that this cursed, evil family does not deserve to be in charge and manage the holy sites,” Khamenei said.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were already at rock bottom before the regional rivals started trading caustic remarks ahead of the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest places in Saudi Arabia, which is due to start on Saturday. Iranians have been blocked from the event after talks on safety and logistics fell apart in May.

“If the existing problems with the Saudi government were merely the issue of the haj… maybe it would have been possible to find a way to resolve it,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting. “Unfortunately, this government by committing crimes in the region and supporting terrorism in fact shed the blood of Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen,” Rouhani said.

The week began with a furious rebuke from Khamenei, published on his website, in which he accused the Saudi royals of “murder” over the deaths of nearly 2,300 pilgrims, including hundreds of Iranians, in last year’s stampede. Saudi Arabia claims the death toll was only 769—despite data from more than 30 countries suggesting it was far higher—and has refused to release the details of its investigation into the disaster.

But the head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council hit back on Wednesday, calling Khamenei’s remarks “inappropriate and offensive… and a desperate attempt to politicize” the haj.

Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, also waded into the dispute, telling the Makkah daily on Tuesday: “We must understand these are not Muslims, they are children of Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one.”

‘Magi’ is a reference to the Zoroastrian religion that was prevalent in Iran before Islam, and is sometimes used as an insult against Iranians.

Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Chatham House think tank in London, said the world needed to pay more attention to the “cold conflict” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This week’s verbal attacks “are an indication that the tensions that really ratcheted up earlier this year are still unresolved,” she said. “Particularly when it comes to the pilgrimage and religious discourse, then it has quite damaging effects on sectarian relations around the world.”

The two dominant Middle Eastern powers follow different branches of Islam—Shia and Sunni—and vie for regional dominance. Iran boycotted the haj for three years between 1988 and 1990 after clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police in 1987 left around 400 people dead. Diplomatic ties were restored in 1991, but relations have deteriorated in recent years, particularly over the countries’ support for opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.

In January, relations were severed again after Iranian demonstrators torched the Saudi embassy and a consulate following the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric.

Around 60,000 Iranians took part in last year’s haj, but the two sides could not reach an agreement on this year’s pilgrimage.

A former senior U.S. foreign policy official, John Hannah, last month cited Gulf sources in an article for Foreign Policy magazine, saying that “the Saudis did in fact go out of their way to make Iranian attendance difficult.”

“[The] Saudis were insisting that the Iranians be kept in a closed camp, effectively barred from co-mingling and socializing with participants from other countries, often considered an essential element of the haj experience,” Hannah wrote. His claims could not be independently verified. Saudi Arabia says Tehran made “unacceptable” demands, including the right to organize demonstrations “that would cause chaos.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef reiterated those concerns on Monday, saying Iran wanted to “politicize haj and convert it into an occasion to violate the teachings of Islam, through shouting slogans and disturbing the security of pilgrims.”

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