Iran Hajis caught in Riyadh, Tehran rift

Iran Hajis caught in Riyadh, Tehran rift

Tehran is not commit-ing to an undertaking governing Iranians' behaviour during the annual pilgrimage.

More than 60,000 Iranian pilgrims will be absent from this year’s Haj to Mecca and Medina due to the political rift between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.

The Haj draws more than two million of the faithful –700,000 from Saudi Arabia itself and 1.3 million from abroad – to the Muslim world’s two holiest cities. Although Hindu pilgrimages in India attract larger numbers of people, the Haj is the world’s largest multinational pilgrimage. This year’s Haj is set to take place between September 9 and 14.

Four separate rounds of negotiation between teams representing the two sides failed to resolve fundamental differences between them. The key practical obstacle is the closure of the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The mission was withdrawn after angry Iranians stormed the embassy following the execution of a dissident Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on January 2 of this year. 

At that time, relations were already strained due to Iranian accusations that Saudi Arabian mismanagement of last year's Haj led to the death of 2,000 pilgrims, including 474 Iranians, in a crush and stampede.

Since there are no Saudi consulates in Iran, pilgrims seeking to participate in the Haj must travel to third countries to obtain visas. Iran has rejected this requ-irement as well as the Saudi refusal to allow Iranian aircraft to transport Hajis to the kingdom.

Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati has accused the Saudis of “sabotage,” heating up the already hot regional political climate caused by Saudi-Iranian competition for influence in conflicted Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

The main political problem is Saudi Arabia’s refusal to grant Haj visas for Iranians applying under the Iranian quota because Tehran would not commit to an undertaking governing the behaviour of Iranians during the annual pilgrimage. All countries sending pilgrims have to sign such agreements.

Following the 1979 Iranian “Islamic Revolution,” its leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called upon Iranian pilgrims taking part in the Haj to demonstrate against the US and Israel. In 1981, violent clashes with Saudi police took place when large numbers of Iranians chanted political slogans in the Grand Mos-que in Mecca and Prophet Muh-ammad’s Mosque in Medina.

In July 1987, fighting between Iranian protesters and Saudi security forces left more than 400 dead – 275 Iranian pilgrims, 42 pilgrims of other nationalities, and 85 Saudi police. Thousands were injured. The Saudi and Ku-waiti embassies in Tehran were attacked and Khomeini called on Saudis to overthrow the Saudi monarchy which he held responsible for the fatalities.

Tehran boycotted the Haj until 1990. When Iran relented, the Saudis reduced the number of Iranian pilgrims from 115,000 to 45,000 and restricted rallies to the Iranian compound at Mina, the place most Hajis reside seven kms from Mecca.

This year, Tehran insisted its pilgrims should be allowed to demonstrate against Islamic State, the Sunni radical movement adhering to Saudi puritan ideology and fighting the governments of Iraq and Syria, seen by Saudis as antagonists.

Violence during pilgrimage

Protest gatherings are in flagrant violation of the reasonable and sensible Saudi ruling forbidding political activity during the pilgrimage season. Iran has even dispatched a suspiciously large number of fit men believed to belong to the Revolutionary Guard corps to lead protests.

The 1987 incident showed that if demonstrations were freely permitted, the Haj, meant to be a peaceful period of religious observance and contemplation, could become a deadly melee of political protests mounted by Hajis against US policies on Palestine and Israel, authoritarian rule in their home countries or opponents in civil conflicts.

Although there had been Iranian-Saudi rivalry during the rule of the shah, this was not reflected in the behaviour of Iranian pilgrims during the Haj. Tensions between Tehran and Riyadh rose dramatically in 1979 after his ouster and replacement by Shia clerics, who saw as their mission export of their “revolution” to neighbouring countries and urged Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, who suffer discrimination, to demand full rights.

Relations deteriorated when Saudi Arabia and Kuwait bank-rolled Baghdad’s 1980-88 war with Tehran over Iranian-back-ed Iraqi Shia plots to kill President Saddam Hussein, his dep-uty Tareq Aziz and plant a Shia fundamentalist regime in Iraq.

The 2003 US occupation of Iraq and installation of an Iranian-supported Shia fundamentalist regime in Baghdad realised Saudi Arabia’s worst fears. Instead of one Shia sectarian regional government, Riyadh had two on its borders.

Iran’s support for the Lebanese Shia Hizbollah movement in Lebanon and of the Assad government in Syria, a  secular ally since 1980, prompted Sunni leaders to express concern over the formation of a domineering Iranian-dominated “Shia crescent” in West Asia, deepening antagonism between the two orthodox Muslim sects.

To meet this alleged challenge, Saudi Arabia stepped up financial, ideological and political support to radical fundamentalists in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya and elswwhere. This has led to insurgencies in many countries, routine clashes between Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan, Afghanistan  and divided the worldwide Muslim community, the Ummah.

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