Iran blames Saudis for hajj 'sabotage'

An aerial view shows Muslim pilgrims walking around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque of the holy city of Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage rituals. (Fayez Nureldine, AFP)
An aerial view shows Muslim pilgrims walking around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque of the holy city of Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage rituals. (Fayez Nureldine, AFP)

Tehran - Iran said on Thursday its nationals will miss the annual hajj, accusing Saudi Arabia of sabotaging arrangements following a diplomatic crisis and a deadly stampede at last year's pilgrimage.

Saudi Arabia denied blocking Iranian pilgrims.

A delegation from Tehran held four days of talks in Saudi Arabia last month aimed at reaching a deal for Iranians to go to Mecca in September.

It was the first dialogue between the region's foremost Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim powers since diplomatic relations were severed in January.

Riyadh cut ties with Tehran after demonstrators burned its embassy and a consulate following the Saudi execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

But with Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran still closed and Iranian flights to the kingdom halted, the talks hit a deadlock.

"The arrangements have not been put together and it's now too late," Iran's Culture Minister Ali Jannati told the official IRNA news agency. "The sabotage is coming from the Saudis.

"Their attitude was cold and inappropriate. They did not accept our proposals concerning the issuing of visas or the transport and security of the pilgrims.

"Saudi officials say our pilgrims must travel to another country to make their visa applications."

Jannati's ministry of culture and Islamic guidance oversees Iran's hajj organisation which held the abortive negotiations in Saudi Arabia.

Iran wants Saudi Arabia to issue visas through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which now looks after Saudi interests there.

Saudi Arabia's hajj ministry, however, said it informed the Iranians that they could get their visas through the online system used for all pilgrims coming from abroad.

In a statement carried by Al-Riyadh newspaper, the ministry said the Iranians had demanded to be able to hold their own rituals, including protests chanting "Death to America, death to Israel."

Saudi Arabia seeks to keep political slogans out of the pilgrimage.

Saudi says 'welcomes all'

The kingdom "welcomes all pilgrims from all over the world and from all nationalities and sectarian backgrounds, and does not stop any Muslim from coming", the Saudi ministry of hajj said.

But the visits must occur "within the system and guidelines that organise hajj affairs," it said.

The ministry added that Saudi Arabia "did not at all ban Iranian pilgrims from coming. The ban came from the Iranian government which uses this as one of its many means to pressure the Saudi government."

The Iranian delegation "refused to sign the agreement to finalise preparations for this year's hajj... insisting on their demands," the ministry said.

It added that "those who have banned their citizens from this right (to perform the pilgrimage) will be held responsible for their decision in front of God and the whole world".

Another contentious issue has been security, after a stampede at last year's hajj killed about 2,300 foreign pilgrims including 464 Iranians.

At odds

Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds over a raft of regional issues, notably the conflicts in Syria and Yemen in which they support opposing sides.

"Unfortunately in Saudi Arabia there is a very hostile political climate towards Iran," Ohadi said.

Riyadh has repeatedly denounced Iranian "interference" in the region, and fears Tehran will be further emboldened under an international nuclear deal which this year began lifting sanctions on Iran.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in February that Iranian pilgrims were still welcome to visit Islam's holiest sites in the kingdom, despite diplomatic tensions.

The annual hajj and the lesser pilgrimage known as umra draw millions of faithful from around the world each year.

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