TEHRAN: A month after hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims died in a stampede during the annual pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia, Iranian authorities are accusing the Saudis of having exploited the chaos to kidnap Iranian officials, using them as hostages in the increasing war of words between both countries.
The elevated tensions could not have come at a worse time just as Iran and Saudi Arabia are both set to attend multination talks on resolving the conflict in Syria. Iran, which backs the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is attending the talks for the first time. Saudi Arabia opposes Assad.
The most prominent Iranian missing in the Hajj stampede outside Makkah on September 24 is Ghazanfar Roknabadi, a former ambassador to Lebanon and a key figure in Irans involvement in Lebanese politics and the Syrian war.
Roknabadi, who served in Lebanon until 2014, was last seen by Iranian witnesses in the aftermath of the stampede, a deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, told the Tasnim news agency on Thursday.
We are seriously pursuing the case of Roknabadi, our former ambassador to Beirut. Witnesses confirm seeing Roknabadi alive until he was transferred to a Saudi ambulance, Amirabdollahian said. Iranian forensic experts have said they have not found a match with Roknabadi among the remains presented to them by Saudi officials.
While the remains of 399 Iranians are now accounted for, 65 Iranians are still missing, including Roknabadi, and 29 may have been buried in Saudi Arabia, state television reported on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia has said that 769 people died in the stampede. The Associated Press, in an independent count, has reported that 2,177 people died. Iran has accused Saudi officials of blocking a main road in order to let the convoy of a high official pass, leaving the pilgrims suddenly facing a dead end. As masses started backing up, a panic broke out. Saudi Arabia has said Irans Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps orchestrated the disaster.
Iranian officials are now openly contemplating whether Roknabadi and others have been abducted as a part of the deeper mistrust between the two rival nations.
Considering his unknown status, the officials of our country consider the likelihood that these individuals have been abducted or there has been a plot against them. So the Saudi government and officials should be accountable in this respect, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who heads the Iranian Parliaments foreign policy commission, told the semiofficialMehr News Agency.
Suspicions have been further aroused in Iran over what the Iranians have called a Saudi refusal to release security camera images of the stampede disaster that would allow an independent investigation of the cause. The Saudis have long boasted of having deployed at least 5,000 security cameras around the pilgrimage site.
Iran, which is majority Shia, and Saudi Arabia, majority Sunni, are entangled in several disputes, most notably the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They are also competing for support in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
Saudi Arabia viewed Roknabadi as a mastermind of Iranian operations against its regional allies. He survived a bombing at his embassy and, in private, Iranian security officials say that Saudi Arabia has organised at least two other assassination attempts against Roknabadi.
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.