Iran’s Supreme Leader has welcomed the renewal of Iranian pilgrimages to Mecca, but has carefully avoided any reference to Saudi Arabia and the possible easing of tensions with Riyadh.
Ayatollah Khamenei said of Iranian participation in the hajj, which had been halted after a September 2015 crush near Mecca in which 464 Iranians were among thousands killed:
[Hajj] can purge hearts of impurities and enlighten them with the light of piety and understanding; it can open eyes to the bitter realities of the world of Islam; it can strengthen one’s determination in order to confront those realities; it can make one’s steps firm and prepare hands and minds to take action.
Khamenei then linked that spiritual message to political issues, seeking to invoke the pilgrimage as the response to foes of the Iranian regime:
Today, the world of Islam is suffering from insecurity: moral, spiritual and political insecurity. This is mainly due to our negligence and the brutal invasion of the enemies. We as Muslims did not carry out our religious and rational duties in the face of the invasion of the vicious enemy. We forgot to be both “strong against unbelievers” and “compassionate among one another”.
He specifically pointed at Israel — “the Zionist enemy provoking sedition in the heart of the Muslim world”. However, while referring to conflicts in “Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain” — in which Tehran and Riyadh have been on opposite sides — he did not utter the Saudi name.
That omission was a notable contrast to the approach of President Hassan Rouhani, whose foreign policy of “engagement” has been jeopardized by the downward spiral in relations since the Mecca deaths in September 2015 and Saudi Arabia’s cutting of relations with Iran three months later.
In a televised interview on Tuesday, the first since he was inaugurated for a second term, Rouhani said:
We believe that this pilgrimage is a good sign to see how we can resolve issues with Saudi Arabia. If our pilgrims come back satisfied and Saudi Arabia acts within the framework of religious and international regulations, I believe we would have better conditions to settle any issue.
Despite the efforts of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to work with other Gulf States in the repair of relations, Rouhani has faced resistance from other elements of the regime, notably the Republican Guards, as well as the tough line of a Saudi monarchy in which Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has become the leading force.