There are signs–tentative signs–that Iran and Saudi Arabia are going to settle their beef enough for Iranian pilgrims to make this year’s Hajj after all:
Saudi Arabia said talks on Wednesday with visiting Iranian delegates on arrangements for hajj pilgrims from the Islamic republic have been “positive”.
Earlier this month, Tehran said “arrangements have not been put together” for Iranians to make this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca at the end of the summer, accusing its regional rival of “sabotage”.
But Saudi hajj ministry undersecretary Hussein Sharif said the kingdom and its leadership “welcome pilgrims from all around the world”.
The two sides discussed “arrangements, as well as organisation and services” for pilgrims, he told reporters after a session of talks with the delegation from Tehran.
He said an agreement had been reached following the arrival of the delegation Tuesday to “use electronic visas which could be printed out” by Iranian pilgrims, as Saudi diplomatic missions remain shut in Iran.
A final agreement would be signed at the end of the ongoing talks, he said.
The big practical sticking point in this dispute is that the Saudis shuttered all their diplomatic missions inside Iran after a totally-spontaneous-and-not-at-all-organized-paramilitary mob torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the Saudis executed the legitimate-threat-to-the-state-and-not-at-all-a-sacrifice-to-Riyadh’s-destructive-vendetta-against-Iran, Shiʿa preacher Nimr al-Nimr, in January. No diplomatic offices means no way to provide Hajj visas to would-be Iranian pilgrims, and no Hajj visas means no going on the Hajj. Riyadh had said that any Iranian pilgrims could feel free to travel to a third country to apply for their Hajj visas, but that clear diplomatic insult didn’t sit well with Tehran, and so there was (and still is, let’s be clear) a risk that the Iranian government would ban Iranians from making the Hajj this year.
There is also a (less critical, it seems to me) dispute over how Iranian pilgrims should get to Saudi Arabia–the Saudis have been refusing to let IranAir handle any pilgrimage flights, the Iranians have been fighting to let IranAir keep at least some of its Hajj traffic. And of course the horrific stampede death of 464 Iranians (out of well-over 2000 pilgrims killed overall) on last year’s pilgrimage looms over things as well. But of course the real issue is that Tehran and Riyadh are on the outs in general, and that can’t help but spill over into the particulars of the pilgrimage, as it often has throughout history. It would be absurd to suggest that a successful negotiation over Hajj details could lead to deeper diplomatic engagement between the two countries (and to be clear, these negotiations haven’t been successful yet). But on the other hand, it’s better than nothing.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have failed to reach a deal on arrangements for Iranians to attend this year’s Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, with officials from both countries trading accusations on who was to blame for the impasse.
Saudi officials accused their Iranian counterparts of walking out of talks early on Friday, despite what they said were offers for “solutions” to the Iranian demands.
A statement from Saudi’s pilgrimage ministry said the Iranian government “will be responsible in front of Allah Almighty and its people for inability of the Iranian citizens to perform Hajj for this year”.
Iran’s Press TV is reporting that Tehran has given the Saudis until Sunday to “‘show its serious determination’ in making this year’s Hajj pilgrimage possible for Iranians.” Iran’s chief objection appears to be that they don’t believe the Saudis with whom they were talking (from the Hajj and Umrah Ministry, it seems) aren’t actually empowered to make a final deal, so it’s possible that this is just a matter of talking to the people who are empowered to make a deal. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.