Iran declines to take part in hajj over dispute with Saudis

Tensions between the longtime rivals soared after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric on Jan. 2. The two countries also support opposing sides in Syria's civil war.

Amr Nabil/AP/File
Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba as they pray inside the Grand Mosque during the hajj in Mecca in October 2013. The hajj, a central pillar of Islam and one that able-bodied Muslims must make once in their lives, is a four-day spiritual cleansing based on centuries of interpretation of the traditions of Prophet Muhammad.

Iran will not send pilgrims to Saudi Arabia this year for the annual hajj, an Iranian official said Thursday, the latest sign of tensions between the two Mideast powers after a disaster during the pilgrimage last year killed at least 2,426 people.

Saudi Arabia blamed Iranian officials for the decision and suggested it was politically motivated to publicly pressure the kingdom.

Iran says Saudi "incompetence" caused the crush and stampede in the area of Mina on Sept. 24 during the hajj, which all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform once in their life. Iran has said the disaster killed 464 of its pilgrims.

Ali Jannati, Iran's minister of culture and Islamic guidance, said negotiations that took place over several months between Iran and Saudi Arabia were aimed at trying to "resolve the issue" of security during the hajj, but failed to make any headway.

"We did whatever we could but it was the Saudis who sabotaged" it, Mr. Jannati said in comments carried by the state-run IRNA news agency. "Now the time is lost."

A later IRNA report in English on Jannati's comments, which came during a visit to the Iranian holy city of Qom, called the decision "tentatively confirmed," suggesting it may not be final.

In a statement in the official Saudi Press Agency on Thursday evening, Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the row and said the kingdom is honored to serve Muslims of all nationalities as guests at holy sites in Mecca and Medina, where pilgrims carry out religious rites and prayers during the hajj season, as well as year-round.

The statement by Saudi Arabia's Hajj Ministry said the kingdom ensured Iranian officials obtained visas to meet with Saudi officials in April to discuss arrangements for this year's hajj, despite the fact the two countries severed diplomatic ties earlier this year. The ministry said that Iranian officials made demands that all visas for Iranian pilgrims be issued from inside Iran; that the transport of pilgrims be divided between Iranian and Saudi air carriers; and that a clause be included in the record to allow Iranian pilgrims to hold a Shiite ritual during the hajj.

Sunni-led Saudi Arabia said it made clear to the Iranian delegation that Iranians can obtain hajj visas by applying online in the absence of a Saudi Embassy in Tehran; that allowing Iran's national carrier to transport pilgrims runs contrary to "internationally recognized practice;" and that allowing this ritual would "hinder movements" of other pilgrims from around the world.

The ministry added that any decision to bar Iranian pilgrims from the hajj is being "imposed by the Iranian government ... as a means to pressure Saudi Arabia."

Tensions between the longtime rivals soared after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric on Jan. 2. Nimr al-Nimr was convicted on a string of charges, including sowing dissent and stirring violent anti-government protests in the predominantly Shiite east, something denied by his family, who say Mr. al-Nimr never advocated violence nor picked up a weapon.

Al-Nimr's execution sparked widespread protests in Shiite-led Iran, which views itself as the protector of Shiites around the world. Demonstrations outside of Saudi diplomatic posts in Tehran and Mashhad turned violent and protesters stormed the buildings. Riyadh responded by cutting diplomatic relations with Tehran.

The two countries also support opposing sides in Syria's civil war and the ongoing conflict in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country.

Since Saudi diplomatic posts remain closed in Iran, Jannati said Saudi officials had said Iranians would need to travel to embassies in other countries to apply for hajj visas. He described that as another sticking point in the failed negotiations.

"Iran's proposals regarding visa application, air transport and security of pilgrims were not accepted by the Saudi officials," Jannati said.

Since February, Switzerland has been representing the interests of Saudi Arabia in Iran and those of Iran in Saudi Arabia, delivering basic consular services, such as issuing visas in cases where the two countries agree to it.

Jannati said Saudi officials had not accepted Iran's request to facilitate visas to the kingdom through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, though he did not specify which types of visas the request was referring to.

The Swiss department of foreign affairs said that as a general rule it "does not comment on activities linked to the protecting power mandate exercised by Switzerland," in reference to its role.

The disaster in Mina was the deadliest in the history of the annual pilgrimage, according to an Associated Press tally of the dead based on state media reports and officials' comments from 36 of the over 180 countries that sent citizens to the hajj. The official Saudi toll of 769 people killed and 934 injured has not changed since Sept. 26, and officials have yet to address the discrepancy.

Last year's hajj, which drew 2 million pilgrims, also saw a crane collapse in Mecca kill 111 worshippers.

Iran called for an independent body to take over planning and administering the five-day hajj, but the kingdom's ruling Al Saud family has refused any suggestion it would share its role in overseeing the holy sites. That, along with Saudi Arabia's oil wealth, provides it major influence in the Muslim world.

Iran has boycotted the hajj before. In 1987, demonstrating Iranian pilgrims battled Saudi riot police in clashes that killed at least 402 people. Iran claimed 600 of its pilgrims were killed and said police fired machine guns at the crowd. Iran did not send pilgrims to the hajj in 1988 and 1989, while Saudi officials severed diplomatic ties over the violence and Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf.

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