Saudi-Iran war of words intensifies ahead of Hajj pilgrimage

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei slams the "incompetence" of the Saudi royal family while Saudi Arabia's top cleric Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh says Iranian leaders are "not Muslims".

Photo by: AP (Archive )
Photo by: AP (Archive )

Muslim pilgrims pray at the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia, September 20, 2015.

A harsh exchange of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensified Wednesday ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage from which Iranians have been excluded for the first time in decades.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blasted the "incompetence" of the Saudi royal family as he met with the families of victims of a deadly stampede during last year's Hajj.

"This incident proves once again that this cursed, evil family does not deserve to be in charge and manage the holy sites," Khamenei said, calling for a fact-finding committee to investigate the cause of the crush.

An image from Mina following the stampede during the Hajj pilgrimage in September 2015. Source: AFP

Saudi Arabia's most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh told the Makkah daily that “they (Iranian leaders) are not Muslims”.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were already at rock bottom before the regional rivals started trading caustic remarks ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Islam's holiest places in Saudi Arabia, which is due to start on Saturday.

Iranians have been blocked from the event after talks on safety and logistics fell apart in May.

Rouhani says ‘punish Saudi Arabia’

Iran's president has called on the Muslim world to "punish" Saudi Arabia following last year's Hajj crush and stampede.

He said countries should "punish the government of Saudi Arabia in order to have a real Hajj."

"The government of Saudi Arabia must be held accountable for this incident," Rouhani told a weekly Cabinet meeting. "Unfortunately, this government has even refrained from a verbal apology to Muslims and Muslim countries."

Khamenei accuses Saudi royals of ‘murder’

The week began with a furious rebuke from Khamenei, published on his website, in which he accused the Saudi royals of "murder" over the deaths of nearly 2,300 pilgrims, including hundreds of Iranians, in last year's stampede.

Saudi Arabia claims the death toll was only 769 -- despite data from more than 30 countries suggesting it was far higher -- and has refused to release the details of its investigation into the disaster.

Saudi Arabia's most senior cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, also waded into the dispute, telling the Makkah daily on Tuesday: "We must understand these are not Muslims, they are children of Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one."

"Magi" is a reference to the Zoroastrian religion that was prevalent in Iran before Islam, and is sometimes used as an insult against Iranians.

A history of violence

The two dominant Middle Eastern powers follow different branches of Islam -- Shiite and Sunni -- and vie for regional dominance.

Iran boycotted the Hajj for three years between 1988 and 1990 after clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police in 1987 left around 400 people dead.

Diplomatic ties were restored in 1991, but relations have deteriorated in recent years, particularly over the countries' support for opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.

In January, relations were severed again after Iranian demonstrators torched the Saudi embassy and a consulate following the Saudi kingdom's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Around 60,000 Iranians took part in last year's Hajj, but the two sides could not reach an agreement on this year's pilgrimage.

TRTWorld and agencies