Iran is hoping the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia currently underway will be “very calm” despite bilateral tensions worsened by U.S. allegations of an Iran plot to kill a Saudi ambassador.
A total 97,000 Iranians − the maximum allowed for Iran under a Saudi system apportioning pilgrim quotas among the world’s big Muslim countries − were now in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, Iranian media said Monday, quoting Iran’s pilgrimage chief Ali Layali.
The representative of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the pilgrimage, Hojatoleslam Ali Ghazi Asgar, was quoted last week saying: “We hope this year’s hajj (pilgrimage) will take place in a very calm and spiritual atmosphere.”
Already strained ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia became taut last month when the United States accused Iranian officials of having a hand in a thwarted plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Iran has strongly denied involvement and emphasized “good relations” with its Arab neighbor across the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia, however, has said it was taking the allegations very seriously and was mulling “a suitable response.”
Ghazi Asgar reiterated Tehran’s reaction to the alleged plot by saying that “the enemy’s propaganda is trying to create divisions among Muslims.”
He stressed, though, that the accusations should not have an impact on the pilgrimage.
“We have separated issues relating to hajj from political issues between our two countries,” he said.
Ghazi Asgar advised Iranian pilgrims to “pay serious attention” to that stance even as they held traditional protests denouncing the United States and Israel.
He underlined that the pilgrimage itself had a “political dimension” and said that “this year’s hajj is influenced by the Islamic awakening” − a reference to the “Arab Spring” that was unlikely to please Saudi authorities.
Relations between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia − the two biggest oil producers in OPEC and the major Muslim nations in the Middle East − have long been fraught.
Saudi security forces have several times in the past confronted Iranian pilgrims holding anti-US and anti-Israeli protests.
In 1987, Saudi police efforts to stifle such a demonstration sparked clashes in which 402 people died, including 275 Iranians.
This year, relations worsened over Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in neighboring Bahrain to put down pro-democracy demonstrations led by Shiite protesters.
The U.S. allegations of the Saudi assassination plot have added to the tensions.
Iran last week sent its foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, to Riyadh to attend the funeral of Saudi Arabia’s late crown prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz.
During his visit, Salehi gave an interview to Arabic media reiterating Iran’s denial of having a hand in the alleged plot.
“We reject these accusations. There is no justification for Iran, which is a brotherly country to Saudi Arabia, to do such an act. It’s an American accusation − they want to create divisions between Muslim countries and especially the two most important countries in the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he told.