In a sign of the further souring of relations, Iran’s supreme leader and top religious figure within the Islamic Republic’s power structure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched a blistering attack on Saudi Arabia, urging the Ummah, or entire Muslim community, to “reconsider” going on the hajj pilgrimage after Riyadh refused to apologise to Tehran over the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims last year.
Relations between these regional arch-rivals have been volatile for decades, even before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. But since that point, relations between Tehran and Riyadh have steadily got worse.
This souring of relations reached a head in 2015 when hundreds of Hajj pilgrims were crushed to death after a stampede occurred on one of the well-walked paths on the Jamaraat Bridge, in Mina near Mecca. In total, an estimated more than 2700 people were killed in the crush, though Saudi denies that number, with Iran alone losing 464 pilgrims, the highest-suffering country.
The Saudis blamed the Iranians for not walking in the right direction, which has infuriated the Iranians. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on September 5 accused the Saudi authorities of “murdering” the pilgrims who were caught up in the disaster. He went on to claim in a statement published on leader.ir, marking the anniversary of the disaster, that the injured pilgrims were then locked in mobile containers and not provided with medical treatment.
“The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers, instead of providing medical treatment and helping them or at least quenching their thirst,” he said. “They murdered them.”
“Instead of apology and remorse, and judicial prosecution of those who were directly at fault in that horrifying event, Saudi rulers – with utmost shamelessness and insolence – have refused to allow the formation of an international Islamic fact-finding committee,” he added.
Khamenei went on to hint at Saudi Arabia’s poor management of the site, suggesting that the sites should be run by international bodies and out of the jurisdiction of the Saudi authorities.
“Those who have reduced Hajj to a religious-tourist trip and have hidden their enmity and malevolence towards the faithful and revolutionary people of Iran under the name of ‘politicising the hajj’, are themselves small and puny satans who tremble for fear of jeopardising the interests of the Great Satan, the US,” he added.
The worst it’s ever been
Earlier in May, Iran said that this year no Iranian citizen would go on the Hajj and not for the foreseeable future.
With Iran’s government currently run by Khamenei, once his decision is final, as the statement suggests, there will likely be no thawing of relations until the end of his tenure, or until the country receives a new supreme leader.
For Saudi Arabia’s part, the foreign ministry responded by saying that Iran always wishes to have special treatment for its citizens and causes issues requesting special status at the annual Hajj, adding that, “It is Iran who is preventing its citizens from fulfilling their religious duty.”
Iran’s comments come nearly a year after Saudi Arabia’s missions in both Tehran and Mashhad were set ablaze after the Sunni-dominated Kingdom, in a snub to the Shia Iranians, executed senior dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr for crimes against the state.
The subsequent backlash in Tehran from the seizing of the embassy building reverberated through Iran’s political and security apparatus. Hossein Ali Amiri, spokesperson for the ministry of interior, went on television in January to criticize the attacks, saying intelligence forces should have predicted this would happen.
Following that statement, a special working group was set up to discover the names of the attackers. Subsequently 60 people were arrested and sent on trial, many of them were given sentences. In addition, the deputy governor-general for security was fired following the incident.