Iran thanks Saudi Arabia for not harming its Hajj pilgrims! A new reconciliation effort?

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

 -Dr. Abdul Ruff Colachal


Artificial dichotomy 

Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Islamic kingdom with a tradition of close ties with the USA, the UK and France. Iran is a Shia Islamic Republic founded in an anti-Western revolution with close ties to Russia and China. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are seen to have aspirations for leadership of Islam, and have different visions of stability and regional order. In the Syrian Civil War Iran has supported the Bashir Al-Assad regime militarily and with billions of dollars of aid, while Saudi is a major supplier of aid to rebel groups.

Relationship Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has historically been strained over different geo-political issues such as the interpretations of Islam, aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, oil export policy and relations with the USA and other Western countries.

Although Saudi Arabia and Iran are both Muslim-majority nations and follow and rule through Islamic scripture, their relations are fraught with hostility, tension and confrontation, due to differences in political agendas that are strengthened for their differences in faith.

Bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have never been normal or smooth. Strains, tensions, diplomatic rejections dominated their ties and in recent times tensions have accelerated thanks to interferences from USA and Israel- leaders of other major religions treating Islam their common foe.

One gets the impression even if Judaism and Christianity merge together,  Iran and Saudi would still continue for furthering their “influence and  domination” in the Islamic world. Obviously, there is something wrong with their perception of Islam and in their own faith.

Both want to severe their ties for some at times vague reasons. The two countries severed diplomatic relations last after Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016 in response to Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric. 

Thank you Sirs!

Some 86,000 Iranian pilgrims took part last week in the Hajj and Iranian government is gratified that Riyadh protected and helped Iranian pilgrims. .

As a possible new phase of relations, Iran thanked Saudi Arabia on September 05 for its handling of the Hajj arrangements and operations this year, saying it opened the way for negotiations between the regional rivals. “We thank Saudi Arabia… for adopting a new approach in dealing with Iranian pilgrims,” said Ali Ghazi-Askar, the head of the Hajj organization in Tehran.

Iranians were unable to attend in 2016 after talks collapsed over security concerns. Iran had been highly critical of Saudi Arabia’s organization efforts in the wake of a stampede during the 2015 Hajj that killed up to 2,300 people, including hundreds of Iranians. The 2015 incident happened because of mismanagement, but Saudis seem to have fixed that,” he told Reuters in a phone interview from Mecca.

“There are always differences arising among countries but the important thing is for the parties to resolve differences through dialogue and negotiation,” said an official Ghazi-Askar. “Right now, after holding a successful Hajj, it is a good time for both parties to negotiate to resolve their bilateral issues in other fields.”

Just before the Hajj journey last month: “If our pilgrims come back satisfied, and if Saudi Arabia’s behavior is within religious and international frameworks, I think the situation would be more convenient to resolve the issues,” Iranian official was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

As both continued to strain ties, on February 14, 2016, the government of Switzerland announced that it will represent Saudi interests in Iran and Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia. Switzerland has recently been the protecting power for Egypt and the USA since diplomatic relations were strained following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. After the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were ransacked by Iranian protesters, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on January 3, 2016.

The ‘thanks-giving’ news gives, rather misleads the world about a new era of bilateral relations between them. But Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif remained circumspect, however, saying he had yet to see “a clear prospect for change” in the bilateral relationship. “If such a development occurs in the Saudis’ mentality, it will definitely be a positive development and will be met with Iran’s positive reaction,” he told Khabar Online newspaper.

Generally, Iran and Saudi Arabia are on a collision course thanks to US-Israeli intervention in West Asian politics. Saudi Arabia is seen moving closer to Israel, the common enemy of Arab as well as Iambic world, to defeat Iran.

Possibly as a follow up of hajj pilgrimage, there seems to be a mutual appreciation between the two powers. A Saudi Arabian delegation will visit Iran for the first time after Riyadh severed ties with Tehran last year, Iran’s foreign ministry confirmed. “The Saudi delegation simply comes to visit diplomatic buildings because the buildings have been empty after the two countries broke off relations. At the same time, we will visit our buildings in Saudi Arabia,” Press TV quoted foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi as saying. Qasemi confirmed that the visas for the Saudis have been issued long before, but for “reasons that are related to them, they have not come yet, and their travel has likely been postponed until after annual Muslim Hajj ceremonies. He added that the date for the Iranian delegation’s visit has not been set yet. “To be honest, the Saudis are doing a great job, working hard to deliver the best service,” said Pir-Hossein Kolivand, head of Iran’s Emergency Medical Services. 

Saudi and Iran compete for global leadership. In a wide-ranging interview, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman said there was no space for dialogue with rival Iran due to its ambitions “to control the Islamic world.” Framing the tensions with Iran in sectarian terms, the prince said the Saudis would not sit and wait for war but would “work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”

That the language of hatred for Islam. Very recently before the Hajj, on May 08, 2017, Iran’s defense minister lashed back at Saudi Arabia, slamming the kingdom’s deputy crown prince over belligerent comments that underscored the deep rivalries between the two powers.

Western media is fueling a war psychology between Iran and Saudi Arabia that could destroy the combined economy of Arab nations. Iran’s defense minister General Hossein Dehghan was quoted as saying that Iran would advise against “such a stupidity” of war on Iran because in that case, nothing would be “left in Saudi Arabia except Makkah and Madina,” the two holy cities.  Referring to a possible Saudi attack or invasion of Iran, he said he doesn’t “understand how they would attempt to do something like that… they must imagine they have a powerful air force to do so.”

Earlier, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered the arrest and prosecution of individuals involved in the embassy attack, while also condemning the execution of Nimr. Asked at the press conference what other steps the Saudis would take against Iran, Jubeir said “we will cross each bridge when we will get to it”.  “We are determined not to allow Iran to undermine our security,” he said.

Ellie Geranmayeh, an Iran expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Saudi decision was likely to have repercussions for the region, particularly concerning the Syrian negotiations. Western powers must increase efforts to safeguard this process and encourage the Saudis and Iran to continue their participation in the Syria peace talks. “These events further set back the urgently needed rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh, and spell further trouble for an already fragile region.” 

Severing ties & tensions 

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been strained since Iran’s 1979 revolution, and significantly escalated last year as Riyadh executed a leading Shia cleric in the kingdom. This sparked the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Iran by protesters, after which the two countries severed diplomatic and trade ties. The tensions between the two countries have now sharply escalated with Saudi Arabia severing ties with the Islamic Republic following attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

Diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been tense since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though there have been occasional thaws between the two rivals. The tensions have now sharply escalated with Saudi Arabia >severing ties with the Islamic Republic following attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. Here’s a look at how relations between the two Mideast powers have shifted over the last decades.

Under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran had rocky relations with Saudi Arabia, though they improved toward the end of his reign. Both were original members of the oil cartel OPEC.

After the overthrow of the Shah and the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, Saudi Arabia quickly became America’s top ally in the region. In the ensuing 1980s war between Iran and Iraq, Saudi Arabia backed Iraq despite its concerns about President Saddam Hussein. That war would go on to kill one million people.

In 1988, Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran, citing the 1987 Hajj rioting and Iran’s attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf. Iranians responded by boycotting Hajj in 1988 and 1989. The two countries restored diplomatic ties in 1991.

Relations between the two nations improved after Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a political moderate, took office in 1997. Ties warmed further after historic visits by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to Tehran in December 1997 and Khatami to the kingdom in May 1999.

There have been issues that strained the relations between Saudi (Gulf-states) and Iran.

1987 Hajj riots 

The annual pilgrimage to Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia, required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life, saw bloodshed when Iranians held a political demonstration. Iranian pilgrims later battled Saudi riot police in violence that killed at least 402 people. Iran claimed 600 of its pilgrims were killed and said police fired machine guns at the crowd. In Tehran, mobs attacked the Saudi, Kuwaiti, French and Iraqi embassies, ransacking the first two.

2015 Hajj disaster: On September 24, a stampede and crush struck the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. While the kingdom said 769 pilgrims were killed, an Associated Press count shows over 2,400 people were killed. Iran said at least 464 of its pilgrims were killed and blamed Saudi Arabia’s “incompetence” for the deaths. 


On January 2, Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others the largest execution carried out by the kingdom in three and a half decades. The execution of al-Nimr, a central figure in Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, sparked protests across the Mideast and attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Iran. Saudi Arabia responded by announcing it was severing diplomatic ties with Iran over the attacks.

Dehghan expressed suspicions over what he described as Riyadh’s close ties with the United States and also Israel, suggesting such ties goes against “interests of Muslim nations.”

The Saudis seek to “please” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the “purpose of provoking Netanyahu’s action against us.” Dehghan also urged Saudi Arabia to withdraw from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Arab states has been fighting the Houthi rebels.

The conflict has worsened an already dramatic humanitarian crisis in Yemen and killed thousands of civilians, mostly by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes.

In January 2016, Saudi Arabia has announced it is severing diplomatic ties with Iran following Saturday’s attack on its embassy in Tehran during protests against executions in the kingdom. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, made the announcement on Sunday while the foreign ministry said it was asking Iranian diplomatic mission to leave the kingdom within 48 hours. The Saudi foreign ministry also announced that the staff of its diplomatic mission had been evacuated and were on their way back to the kingdom. Later reports said the flight carrying the Saudi embassy staff had landed in Dubai in the UAE.

Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry announced the execution of 47 people on terrorism charges, including a convicted al-Qaeda leader and a Shia religious leader. Many of the men executed had been linked to attacks in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006, blamed on al-Qaeda.

Four of those executed were said to be Shia. Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia leader, was accused of inciting violence and leading anti-government protests in the country’s east in 2011. He was convicted of sedition, disobedience and bearing arms. He did not deny the political charges against him, but said he never carried weapons or called for violence. Nimr spent more than a decade studying theology in predominantly Shia Iran. His execution prompted demonstrations in a number of countries, with protesters breaking into the Saudi embassy in Tehran late on Saturday night and starting fires.

At a press conference in Riyadh, Jubeir said the Saudi diplomatic representative had sought help from the Iranian foreign ministry when the building was stormed, but the requests were ignored three times. He accused the Iranian authorities of being complicit in the attack, saying that documents and computers were taken from the embassy building. Calling the incident an act of “aggression”, he said Iran had a history of “violating diplomatic missions”, citing the attacks on the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the British embassy in 2011. “These ongoing aggressions against diplomatic missions are a violation of all agreements and international conventions,” he said, calling them part of an effort by Iran to “destabilize” the region.

The Saudi decision was “quite a surprise” causing the latest developments. “This is an escalation that will create havoc in the region.”

Nuclear dispute 

Worries about Iran resumed in Saudi Arabia amid international sanctions against Tehran over its contested nuclear program and the increasingly harsh rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iran and Saudi Arabia each backed opposite sides in Syria’s civil war, as well as in the civil war in Yemen. Saudi Arabia also grew increasingly suspicious of Iran as it reaches a deal with world powers over its nuclear program. Riyadh has not yet fully recovered from the shock of Iran-US compromises. 

Roots of tensions 

Apart from divisions like Sunni and Shia, the difference of political ideologies and governance also divided both countries. USA and Israel play divisive role in making Sunni and Shia fight and kill each other.

After the Iranian Revolution, relations deteriorated considerably after Iran accused Saudi Arabia of being an agent of the USA in the Persian Gulf region, representing US interests rather than Islam. Saudi Arabia is concerned by Iran’s consistent desire to export its revolution across the board to expand its influence within the Persian Gulf region—notably in post-Saddam Iraq, the Levant and within further south in addition to Iran’s controversial, much debated nuclear program.

The founder of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, was ideologically opposed to monarchy, which he believed to be unIslamic. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, on the other hand, remains consistently conservative, not revolutionary, and politically married to age-old religious leaders of the tribes who support the monarchy and the king (namely the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) is given absolute obedience as long as he does not violate Islamic sharia law. Saudi Arabia has, however, a Shia minority which has recently made bitter complaints of institutional discrimination against it, specifically after the 2007 change in Iraqi governance and particularly after the 2011 events that spanned the region. At some stages it has gone as far as to call for overthrowing the king and the entire system.

Tensions between the two countries have waxed and waned. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran soured particularly after the nuclear program, the 2011 alleged Iran assassination plot and more recently the execution of Nimr al-Nimr. There have also been numerous attempts to improve the relationship. After the 1991 Gulf war there was a noticeable thaw in relations. In March 2007 President Ahmadinejad of Iran visited Riyadh and was greeted at the airport by King Abdullah, and the two countries were referred to in the press as “brotherly nations”. 

After March 2011, Iran’s financial and military support for Syria during the Syrian Civil War has been a severe blow to the improvement of relations. On January 3, 2016, Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran, Iran was ransacked following the execution of Saudi-born Shia Islam cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The execution prompted widespread condemnation within the Arab World as well as other countries, the European Union and the United Nations, with protests being carried out in cities in Iran, Iraq, India, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey. Following the attack on its embassy in Iran, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran and the Saudi foreign minister said that all Iranian diplomats are to leave the country within 48 hours.

The difference of political ideologies and governance has also divided both countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the principle of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, which holds that a faqīh (Islamic jurist) should have custodianship over all Muslim followers, including their governance and regardless of nationality. Iran’s Supreme Leader is a Shia faqīh.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the principle of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, which hold that a faqīh (Islamic jurist) should have custodianship over all Muslims, including their governance. Iran’s Supreme Leader is a Shia faqīh. The founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, was ideologically opposed to monarchy, which he believed to be unIslamic. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, on the other hand, is conservative, not revolutionary, and its religious leaders have long supported monarchy were the king was given absolute obedience as long as he did not violate Islamic sharia law Saudi Arabia has, however, a Shia minority which has made bitter complaints about institutional discrimination against it, and whom at times has been urged to overthrow the king. Both countries are major oil exporters but have clashed over energy policy. Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves and smaller population, has a greater interest in taking a long-term view of the global oil market and incentive to moderate prices. In contrast, Iran is compelled to focus on high prices in the short term.

As far as the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is concerned, both countries have been strategic allies for more than sixty years. Saudi Arabia sees itself as a firm and generous partner of the USA in the cold war and in other international conflicts. The visits by US President George W. Bush to the Kingdom in 2008 reaffirmed these ties. Yet Saudis have always distanced themselves from American foreign policy, particularly with regards to Iran. Even when there was growing criticism against the former Iranian President, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, for his alleged hostile foreign policy in connection to Israel, Saudi Arabia recognized that Iran was a potential threat, and a regional power that was in position to create trouble within their borders. Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s security over time required accommodation and good relations with its geographic neighbors notably Iran. Saudi Arabia has long since looked to the United States for protection against Iran.

Prior to this visit, Saudi National Security advisor Prince Bandar bin Sultan, seen as one of the most pro-American figures in the region, had made a trip to Tehran to voice his government’s interest in building harmonious relations with Iran. During Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s 3 March 2007 visit; he discussed with King Abdullah the need to protect the Islamic world from enemy “conspiracies.”

In 2007, President Ahmadinejad of Iran attended the first-ever annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was established in 1980 in part to contain the ambitions of revolutionary Iran. This visit by the President of Iran was an event which signaled a possible change in relations. Yet soon after the meeting, Saudi Arabia, the most senior member of the six GCC member states invited Ahmadinejad to Saudi Arabia to take part in the annual Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

In 2009, Saudi Prince Faisal said in a press conference with Hillary Clinton that the “threat posed by Iran demanded a more immediate solution than sanctions.” This statement was condemned by Iranian officials. On 11 October 2011 US Attorney General Eric Holder accused Iran of planning to assassinate the Saudi-Arabian ambassador to the United States Adel Al-Jubbair. In 2013, Saudi Ambassador to Britain Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud wrote an editorial in The New York Times criticizing Saudi Arabia’s Western allies for not taking bold enough measures against Syria and Iran, thus destabilizing the Middle East and forcing Saudi Arabia to become more aggressive in international affairs. The Obama administration continues to reassure the Persian Gulf states that regional security is a U.S. priority, but, as of December 2013, the Gulf States express skepticism. 

Iranian action 

Relations between Shi’ite-led Iran and Sunni power Saudi Arabia are at their worst in years, with each accusing the other of subverting regional security and supporting opposite sides in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in January 2016 after a prominent Saudi Shi’ite cleric was executed, prompting Riyadh to close the embassy.

Saudi Arabia severed its diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016, following demonstrations held in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in the city of Mashhad by angry protesters who set the diplomatic missions ablaze for the execution of top Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia Iranian pilgrims returned to Hajj this year for the first time since a deadly crush in 2015, in what could be an important confidence-building measure for dialogue on other thorny issues between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia and several other Arab governments severed ties with Qatar in June, citing its support for Iran as one of the main reasons. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of being behind deadly attacks in Tehran claimed by Islamic State, something Riyadh denied.

Until now, no Saudi report on the 2015 crush has been published, and the bodies of dozens of Iranian victims remain unidentified. Family members of 11 Iranians whose bodies are still missing are traveling to Mecca later this year for DNA tests

Nearly 800 people were killed, according to Riyadh, when two large groups of pilgrims arrived at a crossroads east of Mecca. Counts by countries of repatriated bodies showed over 2,000 people may have died, including more than 400 Iranians. Iran’s Supreme Leader has said his people would never forget that “catastrophe”, but President Hassan Rouhani suggested a trouble-free Hajj this year could help build confidence in other areas of dispute between the arch-rivals. So far, Iranian pilgrims say they are satisfied.

This year, Iran issued its nearly 90,000 pilgrims blue electronic bracelets to help organizers trace and identify them. Dozens of Iranians clad in traditional white clothes and a distinctive red mark arrived in orange buses on Thursday at their encampment in Mount Arafat.

Iranian pilgrims participated without incident in the symbolic stoning of the devil on Friday, the riskiest part of the Hajj because of the large crowds involved. More than 2.3 million pilgrims participated in the five-day ritual, a religious duty once in a lifetime for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey. Tehran had sent pilgrims to Hajj based on Saudi promises of safety.

Pilgrims with previous experience at the Hajj say their facilities and treatment by the Saudi authorities are better than in past years and include air conditioned tents. “The way that security handled the Iranian pilgrims until now has been good,” said Samir Shuahni, an Iranian journalist with the delegation. “This is what I’ve noticed for the nearly month that I’ve been in Mecca and Medina: there is good cooperation and the pilgrims are moving freely.”

Iranians said the Saudi authorities had asked them not to hold a traditional Shi’ite prayer in an open space in Medina, citing it as a potential target for Islamic State militants. Such restrictions have not troubled Iranians still in shock from the IS attack in Tehran which killed at least 18 people. 


Both Islamic leaders do not show real inclination for a peace and friendship deal in order to protect themselves as well as a unified Islam.

However, it is indeed puzzling to know who between the two is eager to sustain the tensions and why.

Clearly, the off repeated Saudi-Iran tensions unnecessarily delay the resolution of Palestine issue as Israel and USA continue to prolong the Zionist occupation of and genocides in Palestine territories. Both should share the guilt and blame for the genocides and hardship of people of Palestine.  Israelis and Americans relish Islamic blood but do Saudi and Iran also do the same?

Needless to ascertain that mutual suspicion forces them to knock at the doors of enemies of Islam as Saudi Arabia is strenuously doing by trying for joint action against Iran systematically.  Will that help Saudi Arabia at least in the long run improve its global standing or Islamic status?

Therefore, Iran still lacked confidence in Riyadh but hoped it would build goodwill.

Question is how far faithful and devoted Muslims they are! Whether they believe in God or in their own relative wealth!

Hopefully, logic and good thinking on the part of both Saudi and Iran would help the Palestinians regain their lost sovereignty to Zionist fascists and western imperialist and also promote unity among Muslims.

These Muslim leaders are accountable for their foolish and hypocritical actions and answerable elsewhere….


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Dr. Abdul Ruff is a columnist contributing articles to many newspapers and journals on world politics. He is an expert on Mideast affairs, as well as a chronicler of foreign occupations and freedom movements (Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang, Chechnya, etc.). Dr. Ruff is a specialist on state terrorism, the Chancellor-Founder of Center for International Affairs (CIA), commentator on world affairs and sport fixings, and a former university teacher. He is the author of various eBooks/books and editor for INTERNATIONAL OPINION and editor for FOREIGN POLICY ISSUES; Palestine Times.