TEHRAN: The bitter war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensified on Wednesday ahead of the Haj pilgrimage from which Iranians have been excluded for the first time in decades.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei criticised the “incompetence” of the Saudi royal family as he met the families of victims of a deadly stampede during Haj last year.
“This incident proves once again that this cursed… family does not deserve to be in charge and manage the holy sites,” Khamenei said.
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were already at rock bottom before the regional rivals started trading caustic remarks ahead of Haj, due to start on Saturday.
Iranians have been blocked from the event after talks on safety and logistics fell apart in May.
“If the existing problems with the Saudi government were merely the issue of Haj… maybe it would have been possible to find a way to resolve it,” said Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani at a cabinet meeting.
He accused the Saudi government of “committing crimes in the region and supporting terrorism”.
How verbal duel began
The week began with a furious statement from Khamenei, published on his website, in which he accused the Saudi royals of “murder” over the deaths of nearly 2,300 pilgrims, including hundreds of Iranians, last year.
Saudi Arabia claims the death toll was only 769 and has refused to release the details of its investigation into the disaster.
But the head of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council hit back on Wednesday, calling Khamenei’s remarks “inappropriate and offensive… and a desperate attempt to politicise” Haj.
Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, also waded into the dispute, telling the Makkah daily on Tuesday: “We must understand these are not Muslims, they are children of Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one.”
“Magi” is a reference to the Zoroastrian religion that was prevalent in Iran before Islam.
The two dominant Middle Eastern powers have been competing for regional dominance.
Iran boycotted Haj for three years between 1988 and 1990 after clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police in 1987 left around 400 people dead.
Diplomatic ties were restored in 1991, but relations have deteriorated in recent years, particularly over the countries’ support for opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni wars.
In January, relations were severed again after Iranian demonstrators torched Saudi Arabia’s embassy and a consulate following the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric.
Around 60,000 Iranians took part in last year’s Haj, but the two sides could not reach an agreement on this year’s pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia says Tehran made “unacceptable” demands, including the right to organise demonstrations “that would cause chaos”.
The kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef reiterated those concerns on Monday, saying Iran wanted to “politicise Haj and convert it into an occasion to violate the teachings of Islam, through shouting slogans and disturbing the security of pilgrims”.
Courtesy :Daily Dawn