Iran won’t send pilgrims to hajj after 2015 disaster

TEHRAN—Iran will not send pilgrims to Saudi Arabia this year for the annual hajj pilgrimage, an Iranian official announced Thursday, the latest sign of tensions between the two Islamic powers after a disaster during the event last year killed at least 2,426 people.

Iran said Saudi “incompetence” caused the Sept. 24 crush and stampede in the holy city of Mina during the hajj, which is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life. The Islamic Republic has said the disaster killed 464 of its pilgrims.

An Iranian delegation held four days of talks in Saudi Arabia last month aimed at thrashing out a deal, but with Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran closed since January and Iranian flights to the kingdom halted they hit deadlock.

Negotiations between Iran and the kingdom had been trying to “resolve the issue” of security for months, but failed to make any headway, said Ali Jannati, Iran’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance.

“The sabotage is coming from the Saudis,” Jannati said in comments carried by the state-run IRNA news agency. “They did not accept our proposals concerning the issuing visas or security and transport of the Iranian pilgrims.”

Since Saudi diplomatic posts remain closed in Iran, kingdom officials had told the Islamic Republic its citizens would need to travel to embassies in other countries to apply for visas for the hajj, Jannati said. He described that as another sticking point in the failed negotiations.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency did not immediately report the news.

The bodies of pilgrims killed in Mina crush in 2015 lying on the groundHossein Jaber Ansari, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, also blamed Saudi Arabia for the failed talks.

Ansari advised Riyadh against letting its political preferences affect the important Islamic tradition.

Ansari said the Saudi government has refused to act on “its recurrent assertions that it would not let political disputes get in the way of the issue of Hajj.”

Iran has been insisting that Saudi Arabia issue visas through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has looked after Saudi interests since Riyadh broke off ties in January.

Tehran has said it is ready to swiftly issue visas for Saudi visa officers to perform the procedure at the Swiss diplomatic mission or elsewhere in Tehran, according to Jaberi Ansari.

The decision not to attend hajj comes as tensions remain high between the two countries since Mina disaster last year followed by execution of a prominent pro-democracy cleric Sheykh Baqir al-Nimr by Saudi government.

The disaster in Mina was the deadliest in the history of the annual pilgrimage, according to an Associated Press tally of the dead based on state media reports and officials’ comments from 36 of the over 180 countries that sent citizens to the hajj. The official Saudi toll of 769 people killed and 934 injured has not changed since Sept. 26, and officials have yet to address the discrepancy.

Last year’s hajj, which drew 2 million pilgrims, also saw a crane collapse in Mecca kill 111 worshippers.

Iran called for an independent body to take over planning and administering the five-day hajj pilgrimage, but the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family likely would never give up its role in administering the holy sites. That, along with Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, provides it major influence in the Muslim world.

This isn’t the first time Iran has boycotted the hajj. In 1987, demonstrating Iranian pilgrims battled Saudi riot police, violence that killed at least 402 people. Iran claimed 600 of its pilgrims were killed and said police fired machine-guns at the crowd. Iran boycotted the hajj in 1988 and 1989, while Saudi officials severed diplomatic ties over the violence and Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf.

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