Sectarian tensions in the Middle East kicked up a notch this weekend as Iran pulled out of participation in the hajj, in what looks like a deliberate attempt to deepen the Sunni-vs-Shi’a aspects of its regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Iran on Sunday canceled its participation in this year’s holy pilgrimage to Mecca, blaming rival Saudi Arabia, as the regional powerhouses’ troubled relationship reached a new low.
“Unfortunately, Iranian pilgrims cannot go to hajj this year,” Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati told state television.
Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization blamed “Saudi sabotage” for the cancellation.
“Despite all the Islamic Republic’s efforts, the Saudis ignored the absolute right of the Iranians to perform the hajj rituals,” it said.
On the one hand, there are plenty of reasons for the Iranians to be particularly concerned about this year’s hajj: during last year’s hajj, a stampede killed over 400 Iranians, and in March 2015 Saudi security guards were accused of molesting two Iranian boys making the umrah, or lesser pilgrimage. Nor is this the first time the Saudis have been accused of mismanaging the hajj. The Iranians boycotted in 1988-1990 after Saudi security guards killed over 400 Shi’a pilgrims in a clash in 1987. And while that incident was specifically sectarian, it’s not just Shi’a who have died in stampedes in Mecca; in general, controversies over the management of the hajj are a fixture in international relations in the Islamic world.
All that being said, it sure seems like the Iranians went looking for an excuse to pull out:
Despite several visits to Saudi Arabia to negotiate visas and other logistics for the September hajj by Iranian officials—including Saeed Ohadi, the head of its hajj organization—the two sides failed to reach a deal to resolve differences over issues including how visas would be issued.
Iranian officials insisted on having visas issued in Iran, while Saudi officials countered that Iranians could apply for and receive hajj visas through an online portal.
An Iranian official suggested this month that time had run out to adequately plan Iranian participation in the hajj, prompting Saudi’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah to blame Iran for instigating any disruption.
Mr. Jubeir said Saudi Arabia had worked to organize the attendance of Iranian pilgrims.
“We believe that if Iran has intended from the start to maneuver and find excuses to prevent its citizens from performing hajj, then that’s very negative,” he said.
The Kings of Saudi Arabia derive their legitimacy in no small part from the fact that they hold the ancient title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Calling into question the capacity of Riyadh to guarantee access to the hajj is a potent way to undermine Saudi legitimacy both externally and, to a lesser but real extent, particularly with the Saudi Shi’a minority, internally.
But this is playing with dynamite. It’s hardly a secret that there have been sectarian overtones, to say the least, to the violence in the Middle East (which at least in some areas can also be fairly classified as a proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranians). But at least so far, the region has not split into overt sectarian warfare. Politicizing the hajj (which strikes a blow at Saudi legitimacy) raises that nightmare scenario. And even the Iranian regime, bold as it is, couldn’t be sure which way that would turn out; the only thing that would be guaranteed would be lots and lots (more) bloodshed.