The Washington Post: Iran announced Thursday it will suspend its participation in the annual hajj, the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia that is a religious duty for all Muslims, in the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the two Middle Eastern heavyweights.
The decision comes amid Iran’s increasingly strident criticism over how Saudi Arabia manages the pilgrimage in the wake of a disaster last September that resulted in the deaths of at least 2,000 pilgrims, including 464 Iranians, according to reports.
Iranian Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati told the state news agency that negotiations with Saudi Arabia over granting visas and transportation for the hajj had broken down, making it impossible for Iranians to visit Mecca this year.
“We did whatever we could but it was the Saudis who sabotaged,” he was quoted by IRNA as saying. The official news agency described the cancellation as “tentatively confirmed.”
Iran and Saudi Arabia, which follow Shiite and Sunni strands of Islam, respectively, have long been rivals in the region, but in recent years competition has intensified.
The two countries are supporting opposite sides in the conflicts raging in Yemen and Syria and have accused each other of supporting terrorism and undermining stability in their countries.
Iran last suspended its participation in the hajj in 1988 and 1989 after it accused Saudi forces of opening fire on its pilgrims, resulting in 400 deaths.
Iran strongly criticized Saudi handling of the pilgrimage in 2015 after the disaster that increased tensions between the two countries, but it was the execution of a Shiite Saudi cleric in January that led to a cut in ties.
The execution of Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who had long served as the voice of Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, prompted angry demonstrations in Iran, with crowds ransacking the embassy in Tehran.
Saudi Arabia broke off ties and closed its diplomatic missions in response, which then became an issue for how Saudi visas would be issued for pilgrims hoping to attend the next hajj set for September.
According to Jannati, four months of negotiations over how Iranians could participate in the hajj finally broke down when the Saudis insisted the pilgrims would all have to go to third countries to receive their visas.
“It’s fair to say that over the last two years in particular we have seen a real deterioration in the relations between both countries,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a politics researcher at Syracuse University.
With its spectacle of 2 million Muslims from all the countries of the world coming together, the hajj could have had the potential to be a unifying moment, he said.
“Hajj represents an opportunity where you could try to mend fences and deal with an issue that is not necessarily political and yet even that issue has become a bit problematic,” he said.
He added that there has been a social media campaign in Iran calling for a boycott of the pilgrimage, encouraging Iranians to spend their money on local charitable causes rather than in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, which has yet to comment on the Iranian decision, has portrayed Iran as the main threat to the stability of the region.
It has been threatened by the U.S.-Iran deal for the Islamic Republic to suspend its nuclear program in return for lifting international sanctions and possibly reduce its international isolation.