During almost every Hajj season, there is an Iranian war of words with Saudi Arabia and this year’s pilgrimage is no exception. The latest statements are worse than any made over the last thirty years and honestly reflect the state of relations between Riyadh and Tehran.
Perhaps the best thing that the Iranian government did was to decide to prohibit its citizens from performing Hajj this year, and thus reducing the risk of clashes which in recent years has led to the deaths of hundreds of people. During all the clashes in the past, members of the Revolutionary Guards had been handling the task of stirring up trouble and they sometimes even murdered people. This is what happened in the mid-eighties when they dragged an unarmed Saudi guard, who was one of the Hajj organisers, and slaughtered him with a knife in front of thousands of pilgrims. After that they engaged in clashes in which about 400 pilgrims and security guards were killed.
There have always been differences between governments in the region but no government has done what the Iranian regime has done since it came to power in 1979. Nor has a government stirred up trouble during the Hajj period like Iran has.
Governments of other Muslim countries that have been at odds with Riyadh, including the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, Nuri Al-Maliki’s government when he was prime minister of Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s government and the previous Yemeni government that was led by Ali Abdullah Saleh, did not turn the Hajj into an opportunity to settle scores. Iran is the only country in the world to attack embassies, and it torched the Saudi Embassy in Tehran nine months ago without the slightest respect for diplomatic norms and international laws.
The Iranian government’s decision to prohibit its citizens from carrying out the pilgrimage this year may be due to its desire to avoid a new and serious confrontation caused by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as well as its security apparatus Basij. They previously threatened to avenge the killing of their personnel during last year’s Hajj. These personnel are said to have entered Saudi Arabia with false names and visas and were involved in the tragic stampede in which 800 pilgrims died.
There are 57 Islamic countries in the world, and only the government of Iran uses the pilgrimage to threaten Saudi Arabia. It carries out political activities during Hajj every year and holds hostile demonstrations that are unrelated to the pilgrimage. The slogans that they use usually encourage confrontation and incitement against Saudi Arabia and the United States despite the objections made by Islamic countries on the grounds that the Hajj is an act of religious worship and should be free from political differences.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia responded to Iran’s official boycott of the Hajj by agreeing to allow Iranian citizens from other countries who want to perform the Hajj to do so without the need for their government’s approval. This came after the failure of Iranian negotiators who visited Saudi Arabia to sort out Hajj arrangements for around 70,000 Iranians, and then they announced that their government has banned its citizens from performing the Hajj.
The Saudi government responded by agreeing to receive those Iranians who want to perform the Hajj without their government’s permission. More than 250 Iranians from the United States and hundreds of other Iranian pilgrims from Europe and the Middle East have arrived in Makkah.
The Saudi-Iranian conflict is the most prominent feature of politics in the Middle East region, and its differences, wars and alliances. The Iranians have included Hajj in the confrontation and have included it within an offensive policy that targets Riyadh.
Iran is trying to control Iraq, north of Saudi Arabia, and is taking advantage of the chaos, the weakness of the central government in Baghdad and the vacuum left by the complete withdrawal of US forces seven years ago. It has turned Syria into a full-scale battlefield and is sending thousands of Iranian fighters from the Quds Force to fight there and manage a network of extremist Shiite militias that Iran brought over from Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. It is the only provider of arms and training to Houthi militias in Yemen, south of Saudi Arabia. These militias rebelled against the Yemeni government and seized the capital a year and a half ago. The war there continues – Iran supports the rebels and Saudi Arabia leads the Arab military alliance that supports the legitimate forces.
Perhaps the absence of pilgrims from Iran this year is a good step that will prevent the situation from escalating and will reassure more than 2.5 million pilgrims who are coming from all over the world and may have been concerned about Iran’s practices.