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Strained History: Iran-Saudi War Of Words Over Hajj

An aerial view shows the Clock Tower and the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy Muslim city of Mecca on September 6.
An aerial view shows the Clock Tower and the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy Muslim city of Mecca on September 6.

An escalating war of words is reaching fever pitch between bitter regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia ahead of this year's hajj pilgrimage, from which Iranians have been excluded for the first time in decades.

It is the most recent sign of soaring tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, which have historically vied to lead competing branches of Islam and more recently are on opposing sides of bloody conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. They have also sparred publicly over Saudi authorities' execution of a Shi'ite sheikh in January and a mob's storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in response.

But tensions between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and Iran, which boasts the world's largest population of Shi'ite Muslims, often come to a head during the hajj, which takes place in Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina in the Saudi kingdom.

Tehran and Riyadh have clashed sharply over the running of the biggest event in the Islamic calendar since an estimated 2,400 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during last year's event, including more than 400 Iranians.

The two sides have failed to agree on safety and logistical issues, ostensibly prompting Iran's exclusion from the pilgrimage on September 10, the first time in nearly three decades that Iranians have been barred from Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia.

Unusually Harsh Exchanges

In a message published on September 5, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Saudi authorities of having "murdered" some of the pilgrims who died in last year's hajj stampede. "The hesitation and failure to rescue the half-dead and injured also obvious and incontrovertible. They murdered them," Khamenei wrote on his website.

Khamenei described the Saudi royal family as "small and puny Satans who tremble for fear of jeopardizing the interests of the Great Satan," in reference to the United States.

Saudi Arabia's top religious authority, responding to a question by the Saudi newspaper Makkah, said he was not surprised by Khamenei's comments. "We have to understand that they are not Muslims," Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh was quoted as saying by the Arab News. "They are children of magi and their hostility toward Muslims is an old one."

Magi, or magus, refers to followers of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion that was prevalent in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia before the rise of Islam in the seventh century. It is sometimes used by Arabs as an insult against Iranians.

That in turn provoked a harsh response on Twitter from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, usually known for his smooth diplomacy.

Saudi Arabia has been criticized for its failure to go after clerics in the kingdom that spread radical Wahhabism, and Tehran in the past has accused Riyadh of supporting extremist groups like Islamic State (IS).

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on September 7 that Islamic countries should take "punitive" measures against Saudi Arabia. He added that "regional countries and the Islamic world should take coordinated measures to punish the government of Saudi Arabia in order to have a real hajj."

Tensions have escalated between Saudi Arabia and Iran in recent months -- particularly in January, when Iranian protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy and set fires inside after Saudi authorities executed outspoken Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

History Of Violence

The history of animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran has on several occasions spilled over to the hajj, leading to bloodshed.

At the pilgrimage in 1987, violence between Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims and Saudi security forces led to the deaths of more than 400 people, including 275 Iranians.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Iranian pilgrims held annual demonstrations against Israel and the United States at the hajj. But in 1987, Saudi police and national guards sealed part of the planned demonstration route, leading to a confrontation. This escalated into a violent clash, followed by a deadly stampede that killed hundreds and injured thousands more.

Muslim pilgrims touch the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on September 6.
Muslim pilgrims touch the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca on September 6.

Following the incident, enraged Iranians attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, while Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on ordinary Saudis to overthrow the ruling Saud family in revenge for the pilgrims' deaths. Iran officially boycotted the hajj for the next three years.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, severed its ties with Iran and reduced the number of Iranian pilgrims permitted to take part in the hajj to 45,000, down from 150,000 before the incident.

Events in 1989 further dented relations, as Saudi Arabia accused Iran in connection with two bombing incidents during the hajj, purportedly in retaliation for Saudi restrictions against Iranian pilgrims. The twin bombings killed one pilgrim and wounded a further 16. Saudi authorities eventually executed 16 Kuwaiti Shi'a for the bombings after originally blaming Iranian terrorists.

In the early 1990s, diplomatic relations were restored and an agreement was reached to allow Iranian pilgrims to perform the hajj. Demonstrations have since been permitted by the Saudi authorities only in a specific compound in Mecca, with few incidents reported thereafter.

The hajj, a religious duty for able Muslims and one of the largest pilgrimages in the world, routinely attracts more than 1.5 million Muslims from around the world.

Pilgrims converge on Mecca and perform a series of rituals over several days that include walking counterclockwise seven times around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped building that acts as the Muslim direction of prayer; visiting the plains of Arafat to hold vigil and seek divine mercy; and throwing pebbles in a ritual known as the Stoning of the Devil.

The rituals end with three days of celebrations around the world marking Eid al-Adha.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.