Rouhani to forgo Hajj, Tehran official says

Iran’s deputy foreign minister says president too busy for Muslim pilgrimage, amid conflicting reports of a Saudi invitation

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Iran’s newly elected leader will not travel to Saudi Arabia, an Iranian government official said on Tuesday, denying earlier reports that Rouhani intended to partake in the Hajj pilgrimage later this month.

“President Hassan Rouhani does not plan to go on Hajj this year due to his busy schedule,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, deputy Iranian foreign minister, told the country’s Arabic language Al-Alam television channel.

On Monday, an unnamed Saudi diplomatic source told United Press International that Rouhani had accepted the invitation of Saudi King Abdullah to attend Hajj, which begins October 13. But Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said on Tuesday that Tehran had received no such invitation from Riyadh, Al-Alam reported.

The enmity between Iran, a Shiite Islamic republic, and Saudi Arabia, a conservative Sunni monarchy, dates back to the 1920s and worsened following the 1979 Islamic revolution, which replaced a secular, pro-Western Shah with a clerical regime deeply hostile to the monarchs of Mecca.

In 1987, then supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini blasted the Saudi regime, calling its rulers “vile and ungodly Wahhabis” and equating them to “daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back.” That year, over 400 people, most of them Iranian pilgrims, were killed in clashes with Saudi police during Hajj in late July. An ensuing attack by angry Iranian protesters against the Saudi embassy in Tehran led to the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries, with no Iranians allowed to go on pilgrimage until 1991.

Official Saudi Arabia, for its part, has largely kept its criticism of Iran behind closed doors. According to US diplomatic correspondence revealed by Wikileaks in 2010, King Abdullah has repeatedly urged the Americans to strike Iran militarily, calling Iran “the head of the snake.” Saudi media remains deeply critical of Iran and its involvement in the Arab world.

But the election of Rouhani as president in June seemed to herald a new era in relations between the two countries. Speaking to Iranian Hajj officials on September 19, Rouhani praised Saudi Arabia as a “brotherly and friendly country,” expressing hope that Tehran and Riyadh could get past the “minor tensions” that were straining bilateral relations.

In 2007, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to receive and accept a Saudi invitation to attend the annual religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

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