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Iran has refused to sign a Hajj agreement with Saudi Arabia, making it impossible for Iranian Muslims to go on the annual pilgrimage. The Saudis blame the Iranians for wanting to foment instability in the region and of politicizing what should be a matter of religious devotion for Muslims worldwide. The Iranian government, for its part, accuses the Saudis of intransigence, sabotage and willful obstruction driven by regional rivalry. Though these arguments have failed to win Iran many sympathizers among its Arab neighbors, the war of words is unlikely to subside anytime in the near future.
For their part, Arab countries have expressed their unhappiness with Iran’s decision not to sign the Hajj agreement with Saudi Arabia. Many of them agree with a recent Arab News report that Iran is trying to use the event to foment trouble and embarrass the Saudi government: “Muslims across the world support the Kingdom and condemn Iran for its interference in the Middle East, according to Abdullah bin Abdulmohsen Al-Turki, secretary-general of the Muslim World League. Al-Turki slammed Iran for refusing to sign the Hajj agreement, saying that all countries had to do so for legal reasons, to protect both sides. This was the requirement of the Kingdom and it was not right for Iran to dispute this....Former Egyptian minister of endowments and member of the Council of Senior Scholars Mahmoud Hamdi Zagzoug said Teheran was to blame for its citizens not being able to perform Hajj this year. Abdulshafi Mohammed Abdulatif, a member of the council, said every year Iran attempts to disrupt Hajj, and that it was intent on sowing divisions and discord. Ahmed Ajeebah, secretary-general of the Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, said Iran did not have the right to politicize Hajj.”
To counter the negative narrative coming out of Iran, Saudi dailies, including the Saudi Gazette, have been keen to show the king and the government engaged in all aspects of the preparation for the Hajj: “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman was assured about preparations made by various sectors to serve Umrah pilgrims and visitors to the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah during the holy month of Ramadan. The Council of Ministers, chaired by King Salman at Al-Salam Palace here on Monday, stressed the Kingdom’s keenness to provide the best services to visitors of the Two Holy Mosques....The Cabinet said that the patronage of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Naif, deputy premier and minister of interior, of the 16th Scholarly Forum for Research of Hajj, Umrah and Visit shows his keenness to use all potential, efforts and services for the safety and comfort of pilgrims and visitors and to further develop the system of Hajj and Umrah.”
However, such efforts have not stopped the war of words from escalating. Saudi commentator Khaled M. Batarfi does not mince words when he calls Iranians “unprofessional liars. They talk about conspiracies and events that no one has heard of, except them. They drag Israel and America into all issues. And they don’t have any evidence and logic to substantiate their accusations....Is it that Iran doesn’t really care for Hajj? Its religious leaders, Khomeini and Khamenei included, had never been to the holy land, since they preferred visiting Najaf and Karbala to Makkah. They couldn’t convince their people to change direction, so they kept causing such incidents and raising obstacles and issues, looking for an excuse to prevent Hajj. The other goal is to disturb Hajj and prove Saudis are not capable of managing it....I am so sorry for our brothers and sisters in Iran who would lose their right to practice Hajj this year. My heart and prayers go out to them. As for the Revolutionary Guards, who infiltrate and accompany the innocent Hajjis, I am only happy that we won’t need to tolerate them this time.”
The response from the other side is equally damning. Writing for the Iranian daily Tehran Times, Hassan Lasjerdi argues that it has been Saudi Arabia, rather than Iran, that has acted out of spite: “Although Tehran has continued to react diplomatically, trying to close the gap, Saudis have shown little interest in Tehran’s peace-making initiatives, giving rise to new challenges. The Saudis’ hostile approach to Tehran is well documented in bilateral ties between the two countries, dating back to decades back. However, it seems that Saudi princes have declined to acknowledge or better to say learn rules of the game, even if this is a game of animosity and feud. That is, nobody can deny the competitive nature of international interactions but competition should not develop into animosity. A close look at the Saudis’ performance indicates lack of rationality and principle and an aspiration for pushing rivals out of the scene by hook or crook. And for this, they have lost their grip on reality, seeing themselves constrained by no obstacles. Pressuring rivals by such limitless over-ambitiousness to achieve goals may end in more and more countries being involved in regional conflicts as seen in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon.”
According to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in an article posted on Press TV, the Saudi actions are driven by far more nefarious motives than competition and spite: “Iran's President Hassan Rouhani says the Saudi obstruction of the Iranians' Hajj pilgrimage this year serves the interests of the Zionist regime of Israel....Elsewhere in his speech, Rouhani said all those who instigate instability in the region, seek to promote the same insecurity in Iran. ‘Terrorism and murder are rooted in international Zionism and global arrogance; however, faced with the unity and strong resistance of the Iranian nation, they failed to carry out their plots,’ the Iranian president pointed out....He emphasized that faith, solidarity and unity of the Iranian nation have struck fear in the hearts of global powers and foiled their ominous plots.”
But Iranian protestations have fallen on deaf ears among the Arab countries, with Arab Times’ editor in chief Ahmed Al-Jarallah pointing out that an event such as the Hajj should not be politicized: “It is unacceptable that the regime in Iran imposes its position on politicizing the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Makkah (Hajj) over 56 member-States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It is unacceptable that this regime is forcing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to relinquish its right to protect millions of Muslims who converge in the Kingdom to perform Hajj, not for nonsensical talk and inciting sedition....Today, Tehran is completely mistaken if it wants to compensate for its losses by causing problems and organizing demonstrations or resorting to explosive charge and fabricating Hajj incidents. In fact, it is putting itself in direct confrontation with a billion and a half Muslims....It is up to the peacock Persian regime to realize that it does not have, and it will never have, the upper hand in the region. This is just an isolated deduction due to the inability of its leaders to comprehend and chime with the current and historical facts.”
Similarly, Asma Al-Ghabiri opines on the pages of Asharq Alawsat that Iran’s decision to not allow its citizens to travel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage is driven by a desire to put the Saudi government under pressure, even though there is little evidence that the rest of the Arab world has been convinced by Iran: “After much dithering, Iran has finally decided to deprive its citizens from performing the Hajj pilgrimage and continues to politicize the religious ritual. The Iranian Minister of Culture Ali Jannati announced that ‘After two rounds of negotiations during which a conclusion was not reached because of Saudi restrictions, Iranian pilgrims will not be able to perform Hajj, unfortunately.’ In response to the Iranian stance, the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir attributed Tehran’s refusal to allow its citizens to perform Hajj this year to its efforts ‘to organize demonstrations and create chaos’....On their part, scholars from Al-Azhar have rejected calls by some countries and groups to demonstrate during the Hajj season and stressed that ‘inciting dissention and chaos and raising political banners during the pilgrimage defeats the purpose of the fifth pillar of Islam, opens the doors to evil and sedition and is forbidden islamically’. The Grand Mufti of Egypt Dr Shawki Ibrahim Allam said in an earlier fatwa that ‘demonstrations during Hajj are forbidden in Islam, and this is a heresy because it causes disunity, conflict and controversy’.”
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