Saudi Arabia and Iran already have a lengthy history of tensions and the recent Hajj tragedy, where over 750 pilgrims, with a possibility of the death toll reaching 1,000, were crushed in a stampede, has only made it worse. It is the deadliest disaster of its kind during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia since 1990 when, according to the CBC, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled. This year’s Hajj was already marred by the collapse of a crane at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which killed 107 people just a few days before the annual pilgrimage began.
Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, lashed out at Saudi Arabia for its refusal to accept blame for the incident, which claimed the lives of at least 144 Iranians, with more than 300 Iranian pilgrims still unaccounted for, as reported in the Guardian.
“This issue will not be forgotten and the nations will pursue it seriously. Instead of accusing this and that, the Saudis should accept the responsibility and apologise to the Muslims and the victims’ families. The Islamic World has a lot of questions. The death of more than 1,000 people is not a small issue. Muslim countries should focus on this.”
ABC Australia reports that the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, used his speech at the UN General Assembly to blast Saudi Arabia in its response to the disaster and to call for other affected countries to play a role in investigating the stampede. He also demanded that the running of the Hajj not be dominated by Saudi Arabia, but be administered by all Islamic countries. In return, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi’s foreign minister, took a swing at Iran.
“[Iranians] should know better than to play politics with a tragedy that has befallen people who were performing their most sacred religious duty. We will reveal the facts when they emerge, and we will not hold anything back. If mistakes were made, those who made them will be held accountable … I would hope that the Iranian leaders would be more sensible and more thoughtful with regards to those who perished in this tragedy and wait until we see the results of the investigation.”
So far, Saudi Arabia has put the blame on pilgrims who they say didn’t following instructions, which led to a stampede, according to Yahoo News. However, survivors of the crush blamed police for blocking off all but one route that resulted in two large groups converging on the same spot, each going in separate directions, which started the stampede. There have been accusations that routes were closed to accommodate the arrival of Saudi defense minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud and his security entourage.
For their part, angry Iranian protesters assembled in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, shouting death to “the treacherous House of Saud” and the United States.
Sunni Saudi and Shi’ite Iran have been fighting proxy wars against one another, with the latest being the war that is heating up in Yemen. The recent deal that the United States came up with for the Iranian regime over its nuclear energy program has also caused further anger between the two Middle Eastern powerhouse countries. Now, tensions have come to the surface as a result of the Hajj deaths, and it has turned into a very public war of words.
While condemnation of Saudi Arabia has poured in from many countries, one leader that came to the defense of Saudi was the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, according to Today’s Zaman. However, the support for Saudi Arabia on this matter is tainted by accusations of an illegal business transaction between the Saudi royal family and the Erdoğan family a number of years ago.
“I do not approve of criticism that targets the Saudi administration. Since those who readily rebuked Saudi Arabia have no such great responsibility [as Saudi Arabia], they can speak with ease … It is not appropriate to blame Saudi Arabia for the situation. Quite the opposite, I witnessed how the Saudi administration showed ultimate attention during my experience while performing hajj.”
What Erdoğan’s support for Saudi will mean in the end is debatable, seeing as members of his own AKP party in Turkey are in disagreement with the President on this matter. And Iran’s power and influence far exceeds Turkey in the region. Iran continues to push for Saudi Arabia to apologize, and has called on the United Nations to lead an investigation, balked at by Saudi Arabia.