Iran’s meddling in Saudi affairs transcends the issue of Hajj’s security
BY Abdulrahman Al Trairi
The Islamic pilgrimage season, known as Hajj, which extended over the course of the first week of September, was “very successful” this year, according to Saudi officials who stressed that the holy event saw no security breaches.
In an emailed statement from Tayseer Al Mufarraj, the official spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics (GaStat), some 1.86 million pilgrims—1.32 million of them arriving in Makkah from across the globe—performed Hajj rituals peacefully. The percentage of non-Saudi pilgrims, according to GaStat was around 71 percent, none of whom came from Iran.
Iran had expressed fear for the lives of its nationals who wished to take part in this year’s Hajj, after hundreds of Iranian pilgrims were killed in the Hajj Stampede incident in 2015, which claimed the lives of over 2,000 pilgrims.
Using the 2015 Hajj incident as an excuse, Tehran banned its nationals from travelling across the Gulf waters to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj, one of Islam’s five pillars.
However, Iranians living abroad as foreign citizens were still able to perform the Hajj, unlike their counterparts living in Iran.
The absence of Iranian pilgrims from this year’s Hajj was highly debated in local and international media, especially because Iran banning its citizens from heading to Saudi Arabia follows yet another incident between the regional rivals.
The ties between Riyadh and Tehran were severed in January, after Iranian nationals (arguably Iran’s special Basij forces) hiding among protesting civilians, attacked the Saudi embassy and consulate’s headquarters in Tehran and Mashhad respectively, against all international norms. After all, Iran has a history of attacking diplomatic delegations and offices.
Iran’s weak apology over the matter, and its failure to secure diplomatic grounds, was another log fueling the fire.
In September, the Persian State took matters a step further when its supreme spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the Kingdom of having a hand in the death of the Iranian pilgrims. Khamenei’s accusation come in tow with continued Iranian calls for the Hajj to be supervised by a number of Islamic states, including Iran, rather than allowing Saudi Arabia’s monopoly over it.
Hajj, which sees millions of Muslim pilgrims flocking to Saudi Arabia’s city of Makkah to perform rituals at Islam’s holiest site Al Kaabah, takes place exclusively on Saudi territory, which the Kingdom cites as enough reason for maintaining Saudi sovereignty over it, thus making it an internal affair that no one else has the right intervene in.
Meanwhile, Iran’s accusations did not pass by unattended, as Saudi Prince Khalid Al Faisal Al Saud, who is the current governor of Makkah Province and the chairman of the Central Hajj Committee, mocked Iran’s relentless meddling during a press conference held mid-September.
“Ask Khamenei about the success of the Hajj season this year,” the prince said, adding that the Kingdom “does not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs, and what the Iranians do in their own country” is their own business.
However, Prince Khalid warned against disrupting the peace in the holy land and abusing the Hajj event for political reasons.
It is worth noting that Prince Khalid’s warning to Iran against meddling in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs is not baseless.
According to U.S. security, Iran allegedly stood behind a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Adel Al Jubeir in 2011 in the U.S., when he was still the Kingdom’s ambassador to Washington.
Not only that, but in 1987, Iran put forth the idea that Saudi Arabia cannot handle Hajj’s security. Back then, it ended with Iranian pilgrims and, allegedly, Iran’s revolutionary guards staging a rally in Saudi Arabia which eventually led to a clash with the security forces, leading to the death of 85 Saudis and 275 Iranians in addition to casualties from other nationalities.
The protest was part of an annual Iranian demonstration held every year during Hajj since 1981 against Israel and the U.S..
However, in 1987, part of the rally’s path was cordoned off by the Saudi police, leading to confrontations.
Despite the clashes, the rally did not stop there as the Iranians marched on to the Grand Mosque in Makkah, leading to deadly confrontations and raising the number of those killed to over 400 persons.
As the Saudi Police blocked the protestors’ attempt to invade the mosque, two simultaneous attacks were carried out in Tehran against the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies.
Perhaps part of Iran’s history in terrorizing the security of Hajj was well avoided this year with the absence of Iranian pilgrims. If anything, the proof lies in the success of Hajj without any deaths or security breaches.
The matter also extends beyond Hajj, as Iran arms, trains and supports military factions from Hezbollah to the Houthis, in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, some of which are considered terrorist groups by GCC and even by international standards.
It is also interesting to note that the terrorist group Daesh, which has taken large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria and is threatening the GCC and the rest of the world with its terrorist plots, has never attacked Iran.
Not only that, but there is also evidence tying Tehran to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s former leader and the spiritual father of Daesh in Iraq.
Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Zarqawi was given refuge in Iran where he reportedly received medical treatment in Mashhad. The Iranian authorities allegedly refused to extradite him to Jordan, which was trying him in absentia. The former Al Qaeda leader was the brain behind several suicide attacks in Iraq.
However, it is worth noting that Zarqawi left no allies behind. He was kicked out by Al Qaeda for being too extreme by the terrorist group’s own standards; and a document found in Zarqawi’s safe house by U.S. troops showed that Al Qaeda had tried to provoke the U.S. to attack Iran in order to reinvigorate the insurgency in Iraq and to weaken American forces there.
There is also the case of continued relentless official Iranian comments against Saudi Arabia. In his most recent article in the New York Times, Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the world to fight Wahhabism, and indirectly attacked the Kingdom.
If anything, this shows Tehran’s inability to coexist in the region and aims at expanding its shadow over all its neighbors, not only in the GCC, but elsewhere in the region. If anything, consider Iran’s meddling in Bahrain, there is evidence that Tehran supported rioters there. It extended beyond supporting rioters to having an Iranian official insolently claim that Bahrain was an Iranian province.
These Iranian ambitions do not resonate well with the Saudis, and the rest of the region.
Fifteen months ago, the Western agreement with Iran, which froze Tehran’s nuclear program, promoted an image of a civilized country that is willing to coexist with its Arab and Gulf neighbors.
However, the much anticipated enhanced Iranian attitude never surfaced. On the contrary, Iran’s negative comments against its neighbors increased, and it further supported the Houthi in Yemen against the majority of the population. And that is what Saudi Arabia is fighting: An Iranian expansion which has left fingerprints of chaos in every country it has touched from Iraq to Yemen.
Unless Iran feels a real pressure to behave well, which would mean ending its interference in the internal affairs of the countries around it like a good neighbor, and unless it deletes its ambitions of expansion in the region, it would be difficult to see any progress in terms of having better neighborly relations with the state across the Gulf’s turbulent waters.
Abdul-Rahman Al Trairi is a Saudi columnist and the author of the book Mawsim Al Hijra Ela Cairo (Immigration Season to Cairo).