With barely three days left before the beginning of the Hajj pilgrimage and no chance for Iranian pilgrims to participate, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is doing all he can to turn the upcoming Hajj into a sectarian riot pitting Muslims against Muslims.
Khamenei’s vilification of Saudi Arabia left no holds barred: “Saudi rulers… who have blocked the proud and faithful Iranian pilgrims’ path to the Beloved’s House, are disgraced and misguided people who think their survival on the throne of oppression is dependent on defending the arrogant powers of the world, on alliances with Zionism and the US…Because of Saudi rulers’ oppressive behavior towards God’s guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj…The hesitation and failure to rescue the half-dead and injured people (in regards to the Saudis’ purported mismanagement of the stampede in last year’s Hajj in which 2,700 pilgrims died) is also obvious and incontrovertible…They (the Saudis) murdered them (the dead pilgrims)…Blasphemous, faithless…The world of Islam, including Muslim governments and peoples, must familiarise themselves with the Saudi rulers and correctly understand their blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic nature…They have placed pilgrims from the participating countries under unprecedented surveillance with the help of the spy agencies of US and the Zionist regime. They have made the divine sanctuary unsafe for everybody“.
All this, supposedly, because Iran and Saudi Arabia did not reach an agreement on Iranian pilgrims’ participation in the Hajj but the real reason is the ongoing regional conflict, a mixture of cold war and proxy wars, between Tehran and Riyadh. What broke the deal? Well, no one knows for sure but here are some of the details.
- Visas: Since Saudi Arabia cut its diplomatic ties with Iran following the storming of the embassy in Tehran by an organized mob, the Saudis offered to procure visas through the Swiss embassy in Tehran – no comment on this from Iran.
- Flights: Saudi Arabia offered to allow direct flights from Tehran – the Iranians claimed that the offer was bogus from the start and that no arrangements for direct flights were made.
- Politicization: Iran demanded the right to hold “rituals” and gatherings – the Saudis refused fearing that these events would turn into political demonstrations and protests.
- Sign: Iran was to sign an agreement which was signed by 70 other countries participating in the Hajj – Tehran refused to do so and the talks fell apart.
Whatever the case may be, Khamenei’s vilification of Saudi Arabia on so many levels is bound to be accepted by many Shiites and pro-Iran Muslim pilgrims who might choose to vent their anger at the Hajj leading to another disaster, but this time, with major political and perhaps even military repercussions.
All of this, at a time when Tehran continues to claim that it wants to unify Muslims all over the world under a grand “Islamic Awakening” when, in fact, it is only managing to unify some Muslims against Saudi Arabia and increasing the sectarian Shiite-Sunni conflict.
Khamenei is inciting Muslims to violence
Khamenei wants the world, especially the Muslim world, to believe that Riyadh is to blame and many will believe him. Others will believe that Iran should have signed the agreement and that the Saudis treated the Iranian delegation fairly. And so, despite numerous occasions in which Khamenei, Hassan Rouhani, Ali Larijani, Javad Zarif and many other Iranian leaders called for Islamic unity, Khamenei is inciting division between supporters of Iran and supporters of Saudi Arabia, Shiites and Sunnis. Zarif in a meeting a few days ago called on Muslims to stop the “illusion of rivalry” in th eregion…maybe he should have spoken to Khamenei earlier about this.
And since pilgrims of both sides will attend the Hajj together, this sectarian division is bound to create another disaster during the Hajj…a disaster which might lead to reprisals and counter-reprisals which could ignite a huge Shiite-Sunni conflict.
Make no mistake, this isn’t another “diplomatic” spat…this is an incitement to violence and war on many fronts:
- He blames Saudi Arabia for not reaching an understanding which would allow Iranian pilgrims to come to Saudi Arabia: this message will incite Iranians, Shiites and pro-Iranian Muslims.
- He blames Saudi Arabia for being a pawn of “Zionism and the US”: this message will incite Muslims who are anti-American and anti-Israel.
- He calls on Muslims to “reconsider” Saudi Arabia’s management of Mecca and Mina: this message will incite all Muslims who are pro-Iranian and anti-Saud.
- He accuses Saudi Arabia of murdering the victims of last year’s stampede: this message will incite Muslims from countries of the victims.
- He accuses the Saudis of being “blasphemous & faithless”: this message will incite all devout Muslims.
- He accuses Saudi Arabia of spying on pilgrims with the aid of US/Zionists: this message will incite participating pilgrims.
This isn’t a diplomatic event…it is a call for violence, bloodshed and war in a holy place which is meant for all Muslims. And the timing is perfect: 3 days before the Hajj, as all pilgrims are getting ready to fly to Saudi Arabia. In fact the timing is so good that it becomes easy to speculate that Khamenei’s whole anti-Saud speech was planned probably from the day that the Tehran refused to sign the agreement with Iran to allow Iranian pilgrims to participate in this year’s Hajj.
In any case, the whole issue has played out very well for Tehran since it can now try to “Export the Revolution” against its regional rival and nemesis.
Saudi Arabia on the defensive
Riyadh has repeatedly tried to show that Tehran is politicizing the Hajj in order to provoke the Saudis and incite pro-Iranian supporters. In fact, it did manage to create an anti-Iran Arab coalition against terror and a smaller anti-Iran Arab coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. But this case is different and it is definitely more explosive.
The disaster in the last Hajj and the criticism over the way Saudi Arabia handled the disaster gave Tehran an ideal base from which to attack Saudi Arabia. Adding to this the fact that Iranian pilgrims will be forced to stay at home only increases the tension. But what makes the whole situation even more dangerous is the fact that out of the expected 3.5 million pilgrims to attend the Hajj, hundreds of thousands, or even millions, will buy into Khamenei’s populistic portrayal of the situation.
The Saudis are already on edge and have introduced strict laws regarding what the pilgrims can and cannot do. It can take only one anti-Saudi pilgrim to ignite anti-Saudi sentiment which can easily turn into another disaster. But this time, it won’t be viewed as an accident but as a sectarian political event which will give Tehran and other pro-Iranian countries a larger base from which to criticize Saudi Arabia.
And then, of course, there’s ISIS and a plethora of terrorist organizations who are looking for an opportunity to spill blood…a lot of blood. Terrorist can easily enter Mecca as part of the millions of other pilgrims and there are enough local Saudis who want a revolution and who are, in many instances, supported by Tehran in their ventures.
Khamenei’s narrative was as simplistic as it was vicious: the Saudis are mismanaging the holy sites and the Hajj, are responsible for murdering the victims of last year’s disaster, are in collusion with the “Great Satan and much worst, are “bad” Muslims. The Saudi narrative will sound something like this:
- It is the responsibility of Tehran that the Iranians cannot participate in this year’s Hajj since Tehran refused to accept the Saudis conditions which are equal to all countries.
- It is Tehran which is increasing the division of Muslims by inciting Shiites and pro-Iranian Muslims to criticize and attack the Saudi government.
- It is Tehran’s visions of “Exporting the Revolution” and a “Global Islamic Awakening” which are fueling Tehran’s anti-Saudi attacks.
- It is Tehran who will be responsible for any blood spilt in Saudi Arabia during this year’s Hajj.
Some will side with Riyadh and others will side with Tehran. Let’s just hope that when Muslims from opposing sides meet, they will discuss prayers and theologies instead of fanning the flames of hate-inducing propaganda.