Saudi Arabia’s Hostile Approach to Iranian Hajj Pilgrims

Friday, June 3, 2016

IRNA Research and News Analysis Group

Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati announced on Sunday, May 29, that due to obstructionist measures taken by Saudi Arabia, it would not be possible for Iranian pilgrims to attend the Greater Hajj ceremony during the current year. The announcement came after two rounds of negotiations between representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia aimed at providing necessary conditions for presence of Iranian pilgrims in this year’s Hajj. Both rounds of talks, however, ended in failure due to impediments created by the Saudi side.

According to the announcement by Iranian officials, Sunday was the last deadline given to Saudi Arabia to give its final opinion on Iranian Hajj pilgrims and send a relevant memorandum of understanding to the Iranian side. Saeed Ohadi, head of Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, was quoted as saying that in the last meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Hajj officials about the memorandum of understanding, the Saudi Hajj minister was not present and had asked the Iranian side through phone call to sign the memorandum of understanding related to the Hajj pilgrimage by Iranians. The Saudi minister had also promised that he would see to it that Iran’s demands would be met. However, this was a vague promise, which was not accepted by Iran.

What made this year’s Hajj turn into an important issue for Iran was a host of incidents, which happened during last year’s Hajj ceremony and affected both Lesser and Greater Hajj pilgrimage by Iranian pilgrims.

The first incident was sexual assault by security guards at Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah airport against two Iranian youngsters in April last year as a result of which Iran stopped sending pilgrims for the Lesser Hajj until the fate of that case is determined at court. However, the second and the most important incident was death of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims in a stampede at Mina, near the holy city of Mecca. What caused Iranian officials to raise their voice in relation with the Mina catastrophe was Saudi Arabia’s refusal to accept its responsibility with regard to this incident. As a result, up to a couple of weeks after the catastrophe, the names of some of the Iranian Hajj pilgrims were still on the list of missing persons and the government of Saudi Arabia did nothing to determine their fate.

A few months after the Mina incident, Saudi Arabia executed prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and this execution triggered a domino of later developments which finally led to the severance of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Since that time, tensions have been escalating between Tehran and Riyadh, though Iran has been doing its best to prevent tensions between the two countries from affecting the Hajj pilgrimage in any way. The most important thing for Iran, in the meantime, was the need to make sure about safety of the Iranian pilgrims’ life and property during the Hajj ceremony. After what happened to Iranian Hajj pilgrims last year, it was natural for Iranians to become more sensitive about their situation during the Hajj ceremony and demand more serious pledges from Saudi officials on the protection of the Iranian pilgrims’ life and property.

Despite all efforts made by Iran to prevent the two countries’ political differences from spreading to the issue of the Hajj, Saudi Arabia set unacceptable conditions for Iran as a result of which the Hajj pilgrimage was tied to political differences between the two countries.

The first obstructionist effort by Saudi Arabia, which was aimed at preventing Iranian pilgrims from being dispatched to that country, came to the surface in the first round of consultations between Tehran and Riyadh. Those negotiations were first expected to be held between Iran and Saudi Arabia in January and end in signing of a memorandum of understanding in this regard, but after a delay of three months, they were held in late April. During the April talks, Saudi Arabia rejected the Islamic Republic’s proposal to issue visas for Iranian pilgrims in Iran and also opposed their transfer by the Islamic Republic of Iran Airlines, thus causing negotiations to hit a deadlock.

As put by Iranian officials, during those negotiations, Iranian officials tried to solve problems related to issuing visa for Iranian pilgrims and using the Islamic Republic of Iran Airlines to transfer pilgrims from Iran to Saudi Arabia. In addition, due to bitter incidents, which took place last year, Iranian officials made efforts to ensure that security and dignity of Iranian pilgrims would be guaranteed during the Hajj pilgrimage. However, due to lack of coordination among the high levels of Saudi Arabia’s government and also due to impact of political issues on the Hajj, Riyadh did not give a positive answer to Tehran’s demands.

The second round of talks was held after a delay of 45 days and the Iranian delegation set off for Saudi Arabia on May 25 to conduct consultations in this regard on an official invitation from Saudi Hajj minister and after he promised to solve the existing problems. However, even this round of negotiations could not convince the Iranian delegation and despite claims by the Saudi Arabia to solve consular problem, no written agreement was signed between Iranian officials and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry in this regard.

In connection with this development, the sixth paragraph of the communiqué issued by Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization on May 29, read as such: “Despite claims by the Saudi side to solve consular problem, no written agreement has been so far signed in this regard between officials of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swiss Foreign Ministry in accordance with international conventions.”

In view of various problems and issues that have affected Iranian pilgrims in past years during their presence in Saudi Arabia, which have been addressed within framework of consular regulations, a consular agreement was the most inevitable and the foremost step, which should have been taken by Saudi officials in their interaction with their Iranian counterparts to facilitate dispatch of Iranian pilgrims to that country.

What can be deduced from remarks made by various Saudi officials, including the country’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, is that the main reason behind Saudi Arabia’s obstructionism in the face of this year’s Hajj pilgrimage by Iranians was Saudi government’s opposition to holding of a prayer ceremony by Iranian pilgrims and another ceremony, which has come to be known as the “Disavowal of the Infidels.” This comes as both ceremonies have been held in past years in a normal manner and without causing any problem or tension.

However, Saudi Arabian officials went well beyond this limit this year and noted that they would not allow Iranian caravans to use Iran’s flag during the Hajj ceremony. This development came despite the fact that using Iran’s flag on buses or to mark the residence of the Hajj pilgrims has been a usual measure taken to facilitate their movement during the ceremony.

All these issues clearly indicate that through their illogical behavior from the very beginning, Saudis were bent on preventing presence of Iranians in this year’s Hajj ceremony and were trying to tarnish the dignity of Iranian Hajj pilgrims by imposing unacceptable conditions on them.

It is obvious that Saudi Arabia is responsible for preventing Iranian pilgrims from taking part in this year’s Greater Hajj pilgrimage as Riyadh has not observed the principles needed to host pilgrims of the Two Holy Mosques. It must be noted that before being a privilege and trump card for Saudi Arabia, the presence of the Two Holy Mosques in this country obligates Saudi officials to provide grounds for safe, secure and dignified presence of Muslims from across the world in Saudi Arabia to implement the Hajj pilgrimage.

Of course, this is not the first time that Iranian Hajj pilgrims are not present in the Hajj ceremony. Following the Hajj ceremony in 1987, in which Saudi Arabia’s security forces killed more than 100 Iranian pilgrims during the “Disavowal of the Infidels” ceremony, the late leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Imam Khomeini, issued a decree stopping dispatch of Iranian pilgrims to Mecca. As a result, Iranian Hajj pilgrims did not take part in the Hajj ceremony up to the end of the 1980s.

Key WordsSaudi Arabia, Hostile Approach, Iran, Hajj Pilgrims, Obstructionist Measures, Greater Hajj, Lesser Hajj, Mina, Mecca, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Political Differences, Memorandum of Understanding, Consular Regulations, Adel al-Jubeir, Two Holy Mosques 

Source: Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

*Photo Credit: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

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