PHOTO: Can arrangements for this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca be the catalyst for better Iran-Saudi relations?
After months of worsening relations and hostile rhetoric, Iran and Saudi Arabia are trying to mend ties through arrangements for this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca.
In recent weeks, Iranian and Saudi officials — often below the surface of the public denunciations — have been trying to establish the details of the hajj, following a crush last September near Mecca in which 464 Iranians were among the victims, estimated to be near 2,500.
Earlier this week, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said he was hopeful of improvement in relations. on Thursday, Hussein Sharif, the Undersecretary at the Saudi Hajj Ministry, said a preliminary agreement had been reached on travel arrangements.
Later in the day, Iran’s Culture Minister Ali Jannati was more cautious when asked about Sharif’s statement:
The Iranian delegation must return so we can see if it has been able to reach an understanding with Saudi Arabia or not. If Saudi Arabia cannot fulfill the Islamic Republic’s demands, then this year the Hajj will not happen….I do not think Saudi Arabia’s policies have changed overall.
Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Iran in January following an attack by a crowd on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The raid, in which fires were set and part of the Embassy was ransacked, was spurred by the Saudi execution of a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Relations have continued to be fraught with the two countries on opposite sides of the civil wars in Yemen and Syria. At international talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has clashed with Saudi counterpart Adel al-Jubeir, citing the role of Saudi nationals in the 9-11 attacks. The Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards have repeatedly declared Saudi conspiracies — working with the US, Britain, and Israel — to support terrorists and undermine the Islamic Republic.
However, Saudi Arabia’s Sharif said on Thursday that the break in diplomatic relations would be overcome by using electronic visas by Iranian pilgrims to the Hajj.