Iran Boycotts Hajj Pilgrimage Amid Ongoing Rivalry With Saudi Arabia

Iran has boycotted the annual Hajj Pilgrimage on Sunday, saying its pilgrims would not attend amid its ongoing economic and geopolitical feud with Saudi Arabia.

The announcement of Iran cancelling their participation in this year's pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca is a further sign of deteriorating relations between the two regional powers, whose relationship recently hit a new low. Iran blamed Saudi Arabia for "sabotage" and failing to guarantee the safety of Iranian pilgrims during last year's Hajj pilgrimage, which experienced the worst tragedy in 25 years when 700 people were crushed to death by stampeding crowds outside the city, including 460 Iranians, according to Bloomberg.

Iran declared three days of national mourning at the time, and the wounds from the tragic incident still haven't healed.

"Unfortunately, Iranian pilgrims cannot go to hajj this year," Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati told state television on Sunday, according to the Wall Street Journal. "Despite all the Islamic Republic's efforts, the Saudis ignored the absolute right of the Iranians to perform the hajj rituals."

The annual Hajj pilgrimage takes place in the western Saudi city of Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, and usually involves millions of Muslims from around the world. The announcement followed months of tense talks about how Iranian pilgrims would obtain visas from Saudi Arabia after the Kingdom severed its diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran back in January of this year. After Saudi authorities executed a prominent Shiite cleric and activist earlier in the month, the Saudi embassy in Iran was attacked by angry crowds. Riyadh responded by diplomatically breaking with Iran.

"Given the treatment and rhetoric by Saudi officials in two rounds of talks with the Iranian delegation and the obstacles created, in effect Hajj won't be possible," Minister Jannati continued, according to a separate report by Bloomberg. "Unfortunately, Iranian pilgrims won't be able to make it to Mecca this year."

Saudi Arabia, in turn, blamed Iran for the decision and for the weeks of talks over the logistical side of the pilgrimage breaking down. Saudi authorities claimed they agreed to most of the Iranian demands, but they expected special treatment above and beyond other Muslim countries that participate in the Hajj.

"It was demanding the right to stage semi-protests, and it was demanding for privileges outside the framework of the normal organization which would create chaos during the hajj period," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said, according to the Journal. "This is unacceptable."

Despite weeks of talks and multiple visits by Iranian officials, including Saeed Ohadi, the head of its hajj organization in Iran, to negotiate Saudi visas for the September pilgrimage, the two countries failed to resolve their issues to reach a deal. Subsequently, Iran's foreign ministry accused Saudi Arabia accused Saudi Arabia of politicizing a religious rite, while Saudi authorities accused Iran of depriving its citizens of an Islamic religious duty by failing to agree to a deal.

This dispute comes at a time when the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is intensifying. Iran's nuclear deal with the world's powers put a halt to its nuclear arms program, ending the crippling sanctions, and opening it up the world's markets. Since then, the two oil-exporting countries have clashed in OPEC, with Iran eager to take its share of oil sales, and Saudi Arabia wanting to make sure it stays top dog. In addition, the two are backing different sides in violent regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

This isn't the first time Iran has stopped sending Hajj pilgrims -- in 1987, clashes between pilgrims and Saudi security forces resulted in the deaths of more than 400 people, most of them of Iranian origin. Iran stopped sending pilgrims for a period of three years afterward.

[Photo by Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images]