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On Eve Of Hajj, Pilgrims At Center Of Iran-Saudi Rift

Pilgrims from Iran arrive at Jeddah airport in Saudi Arabia on October 30. More than 500 have now been sent back home, Iran says.
Pilgrims from Iran arrive at Jeddah airport in Saudi Arabia on October 30. More than 500 have now been sent back home, Iran says.
Officials have downplayed suggestions that there is any element of retaliation behind the deportations of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims upon their arrival in Saudi Arabia for the hajj this week.

Coming just ahead of the biggest event on the Islamic calendar and just after allegations that Iran was behind an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil, the timing has Iranian pilgrims crying foul, and observers noting the rocky history between the two countries when it comes to the hajj.

Reports from the Iranian media have confirmed that more than 520 pilgrims have been arrested and deported from Saudi Arabia this week.

An unidentified member of the initial group of 150 detained on October 31 told Iran's Fars news agency that they were detained at Medina airport on the pretext that they had fake visas.

"They are telling us that there is a problem with our visas, whereas our visas are genuine," he told the agency. "They were issued by the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad and some of the officers themselves accept the fact that the visas are genuine."

He added that the pilgrims were told that "the majority of Iranians are Jewish or have Jewish ancestors and there is no reason for them to go on hajj pilgrimage."

Saudi-Iranian Tensions

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi shrugged off the deportations earlier this week, saying the Mashhad consulate experienced difficulties issuing visas ahead of the hajj, despite the number of deportations increasing during the week.

Qashqavi was reportedly negotiating with Saudi officials to resolve the issue, and has encouraged the country to introduce visa-free travel during hajj, which begins on November 4. But then news came on November 3 that an additional 370 pilgrims had been detained and deported.

Iran had earlier voiced its hope that the hajj would be "very calm" despite bilateral tensions between the two regional powers worsening in the wake of the plot allegations announced in October by the United States. The Iranian government has strongly denied any involvement in such a plot, and has sent a letter to Washington, challenging the U.S. allegations.

Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz was asked this week if any special arrangements had been worked out with Iran ahead of the hajj in the wake of the alleged plot. "There is no understanding because there is no need for it," he was quoted as saying. "The Iranians have always shown their respect for the hajj."

The crown prince, who also heads the Interior Ministry, did however warn that Saudi Arabia would take "all means" necessary to ensure a peaceful pilgrimage. "We are ready to face all events, whatever they are," he said, "our means are peaceful...except for those who want to attack, whom we will prevent with all means."

Clashing Within Islam

The traveling caravan of Iranian pilgrims, which include several well-known Koran reciters and no political figures, insists that their deportation marks only the most recent example of offensive behavior shown toward Iranian pilgrims.

And outside observers back their claims. Adel Darwish, a British journalist and political commentator specializing in Middle Eastern politics, says the incident could be taken as a product of past and current animosity between the two countries.

Darwish says the practice of deporting Iranian pilgrims from the kingdom is a practice that began after the early 1980s -- when the Iranian government began using the hajj as a political platform to export the Islamic revolution to the Persian Gulf states.

"In the last few years, the Iranians have become more sophisticated in using intelligence services and their agents disguised as pilgrims in order to spread the revolution and radical ideas, knowing that people are coming from Africa, from Asia, and from faraway places in Europe.," Darwish says. "And that would be a good gathering for them to spread the message."

In the long term, Darwish sees the Saudi-Iranian rift continuing, and insists Saudi Arabia will feel threatened as long as the Islamic regime in Iran continues to wield power. In the short term, Darwish predicts the two countries will continue to antagonize each other.

"The Saudis will do everything in their power to protect their interests, while the Iranians will try to export their internal problems," he says, "because they have been having internal problems by creating tension along the western shore of the gulf."

History Of Violence

The long history of tensions between Saudi Arabia, predominantly Sunni Muslim, and Iran, which boasts the world’s largest population of Shi'ite Muslims, has on several occasions spilled over to the annual hajj pilgrimage, leading to bloody clashes between the sides.

In 1987, violent clashes between Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims and the Saudi security forces during the hajj pilgrimage led to the deaths of over 400 people, including 275 Iranians.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Iranian pilgrims had 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 between them and the pilgrims. This escalated into a violent clash, followed by a deadly stampede that killed hundreds and injured thousands more.

Following the incident, enraged Iranians attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, while Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on ordinary Saudis to overthrow the ruling Saud family in revenge for the pilgrims' deaths. Iran 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, when Saudi Arabia accused Iran in connection with two bombing incidents during the hajj in apparent 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, the largest pilgrimage in the world, will bring together over 1.5 million Muslims from around the world to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest cities in Islam.

The hajj will see pilgrims simultaneously converge on Mecca for a week and perform a series of rituals. This includes, walking counterclockwise seven times around the Kaaba, the cube-shaped building that acts as the Muslim direction of prayer; going to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil; and throwing stones in a ritual known as the Stoning of the Devil.

The rituals end with three days of global celebrations around the world marking Eid.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, 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 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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