Passport

Hajj Closed to Iranians After Year of Discord

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are set to keep tens of thousands from the anual pilgrimage.

Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Arafat near Mecca as they perform one of the Hajj rituals late on October 3, 2014. The pilgrims perform a series of rituals during the annual Hajj. They circumambulate the kaaba seven times, runs back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, drink from the Zamzam Well, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, and throws stones in a ritual Stoning of Devil. The pilgrims then shave their heads, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, and celebrate Eid al-Adha holiday.
 AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)
Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Arafat near Mecca as they perform one of the Hajj rituals late on October 3, 2014. The pilgrims perform a series of rituals during the annual Hajj. They circumambulate the kaaba seven times, runs back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, drink from the Zamzam Well, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, and throws stones in a ritual Stoning of Devil. The pilgrims then shave their heads, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, and celebrate Eid al-Adha holiday. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images)

Last year, almost 75,000 Iranians went on the hajj — the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, a requirement of Islam, that many scrimp and save for years to afford.

This year, the Islamic Republic is set to send zero.

Since last year’s hajj, tensions between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have peaked. Disaster marked the 2015 pilgrimage: A stampede, one of many in the hajj’s history, cost at least 2,426 lives, 464 of them Iranian. Iran said Saudi “incompetence” and “mismanagement” were to blame.

Relations between Riyadh and Tehran worsened in January, when Iranian protesters ransacked part of the Saudi embassy after Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. And both countries back different factions in the civil wars, which have come to serve as proxy battles, in Syria and Yemen.

On Thursday, an Iranian official told the country’s state media that negotiations to keep hajj open had come to an impasse. “We did whatever we could, but it was the Saudis who sabotaged” it, said Ali Jannati, Iran’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance.

Saudi officials contested that narrative. “The decision not to participate in this year’s hajj is a decision made solely by the Iranian government in what is clearly an effort to politicize the hajj,” a spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington said in an email to Foreign Policy. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has always welcomed all pilgrims. Any government that hinders or prevents its citizens from exercising their right to perform the pilgrimage, shall be held accountable before Allah and the entire world.”

Even if Tehran decided not to closed off the 2016 hajj, however, few Iranians would be able to go. Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran after January’s embassy incident in Tehran. Without the help of consulates or an embassy, Iranians looking to obtain hajj visas would have had to travel to other countries to apply. Even those willing and able to travel abroad for visas would likely have been wary, given last year’s tragedy and the mounting discord between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic.

Saudi Arabia could lose a half-billion dollars in revenue from the Iranians’ absence, Forbes calculated — unless Saudi hajj authorities disburse Iran’s travel quota between other countries (Saudi Arabia allocates to each country a certain number of spaces on the hajj each year).

Tehran last boycotted the pilgrimage in 1988 and 1989, after hundreds of Iranian pilgrims died in clashes with Saudi riot police in 1987, amid a tableaux of international friction in the Persian Gulf.

Iran wants sole responsibility for the pilgrimage out of the hands of the al Saud family, under whose watch thousands have died in crowd-control incidents over the past 25 years.

Even when Saudi Arabia resumes relations with Iran, and Tehran stops boycotting the hajj, the safety issues will remain. As will Iranian animosity toward Saudi hajj policy and the inherent tensions borne of the al Saud family’s custodianship of the holiest sites in Islam, in a country that discriminates against Shiites.

Photo credit: MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy@bsoloway

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