Iran has announced that this year Iranian citizens will not be participating in the hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest places. Last September, a catastrophic stampede occurred during the hajj that killed more than 2,400 people. Iran had the largest losses of any country, with nearly 500 of its citizens killed. The incident is considered one of the biggest losses of life in the history of the hajj.
The hajj is regarded as one of the most sacred obligations in Islam. During the hajj, which takes place annually in September, millions of Muslim pilgrims from around the world visit the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. All able-bodied Muslims who can afford it are supposed to perform the pilgrimage at least once in their lives.
Saudi Arabia, the host country of the pilgrimage, takes great pride in hosting the event. The Saudi monarch bears the title of “the custodian of the two holy mosques” in Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia has not disclosed the results from an investigation of the incident. Iran has said that Saudi “incompetence” caused the crush and stampede that occurred during last year’s event.
Last month, an Iranian delegation met with Saudi Arabia to discuss hajj arrangements over four days of talks. According to sources with knowledge of the matter, the talks did not go smoothly and ended with neither party satisfied. The points of contention appeared to be the issuing of visas, the transportation available, and the security of the pilgrims.
The conflict over the hajj is another indication of the worsening relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two countries have long been regional rivals. Iran is predominantly Shiite, and Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni. The two countries have taken positions on opposite sides of the conflicts that have erupted in Syria and Yemen. In January, Iranian protesters burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran after the execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric. The incident led to Saudi Arabia severing diplomatic relations with Iran later that month.
This is not the first fight over pilgrimages between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 1987, nearly 300 Iranian pilgrims died in clashes in Mecca. Angry protesters in Tehran then seized the Saudi Embassy, resulting in Saudis suspending ties with Iran. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were not reestablished until 1991. Iranians did not perform the hajj during the suspension.