Iran not sending pilgrims to Mecca, blames Saudi Arabia: State TV

Muslim pilgrims take part in the annual haj pilgrimage at the holy Kaaba in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 2014.
Muslim pilgrims take part in the annual haj pilgrimage at the holy Kaaba in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia in 2014. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

TEHERAN (AFP) - Iranians will not take part in this year's Mecca pilgrimage because of "obstacles" raised by Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam's holiest sites, Iran's Culture Minister Ali Jannati said on Sunday (May 29).

In the latest dispute between the two regional rivals, "after two series of negotiations without any results because of obstacles raised by the Saudis, Iranian pilgrims will unfortunately not be able to take part in the haj" pilgrimage, expected to take place this year in September, he said, quoted by state television.

Saudi officials have said an Iranian delegation wrapped up a visit to the kingdom on Friday without reaching a final agreement on arrangements for haj pilgrims from the Islamic republic.

The Saudi haj ministry said it had offered "many solutions" to meet a string of demands made by the Iranians in two days of talks.

Agreement had been reached in some areas, including to use electronic visas which could be printed out by Iranian pilgrims, as Saudi diplomatic missions remain shut in Iran, it said.

Riyadh cut ties with Teheran in January after Iranian demonstrators torched its embassy and a consulate following its execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

Shi'ite Iran and predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia are at odds over a raft of regional issues, notably the conflicts in Syria and Yemen in which they support opposing sides.

Earlier this month, Iran had accused its regional rival of seeking to "sabotage" the haj, a pillar of Islam that devout Muslims must perform at least once during their lifetime if they are able.

Teheran said Riyadh had insisted that visas for Iranians be issued in a third country and would not allow pilgrims to be flown aboard Iranian aircraft.

But the Saudi haj ministry said on Friday that Riyadh had agreed to allow Iranians to obtain visas through the Swiss embassy in Teheran, which has looked after Saudi interests since ties were severed in January.

Riyadh also agreed to allow some Iranian carriers to fly pilgrims to the kingdom despite a ban imposed on Iranian airlines following the diplomatic row between the two countries, the ministry said.

Last week's talks were the second attempt by the two countries to reach a deal on organising this year's pilgrimage for Iranians after an unsuccessful first round held in April in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi ministry said at the time that the Iranian Haj Organisation would be held responsible "in front of God and the people for the inability of its pilgrims to perform haj this year".

Another contentious issue has been security, after a stampede at last September's haj killed about 2,300 foreign pilgrims, including 464 Iranians.