Iran and Saudi Arabia Fight War Of Words Over Muslim Holy Sites

Religion Becomes Part Of Geopolitical Struggle

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, has attacked Saudi Arabian control over Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. He sharply criticized the Saudi government’s management of important mosques in the two cities. The Ayatollah specifically pointed out the Mina Stampede. The 2015 catastrophic incident resulted in the death of almost 800 Muslims.

The Mina Stampede happened in Jamarat, approximately two miles distant from Mecca. The stampede led to the death of pilgrims of multiple nationalities, including Iran, Pakistan, Philippines, Netherlands, Somalia, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Turkey.

The Government of Saudi Arabia responded by executing a cleric belonging to the Shi’ite branch of Islam. Iran is a Shi’ite country, while Saudi Arabia is Sunni. The execution led to massive Iranian protests. A few Iranians even stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 2015. Riyadh barred Iranians from Hajj, the holy pilgrimage Muslims take to Mecca. Khamenei protested, pointing out that Mecca and Medina belong to all Muslims.

The Ayatollah, in his official website, wrote that it is unfortunate that the Saudi Arabian government creates complications for Hajj pilgrims and also bars them from performing rituals. The Iranian leader referred to the Mina Stampede as an “atrocity.” He said the Saudi action breached every pilgrim’s right to have security which God has provided the person in Mecca and Medina. The Supreme Leader alleged that Saudi authorities had blocked access to the family members who wanted to offer prayers to the deceased.

The religious dispute is part of a broader struggle between the two countries. Saudi Arabia and Iran are now fighting multiple proxy wars in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. The two countries provide military and logistical support to opposing sides. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran aspire to be regional superpowers.

Iran regularly condemns Saudi Arabia over the latter’s perceived inefficiency in controlling pilgrims, and the Ayatollah has called Saudi rulers as villainous, inept and worthless. He has publicly labeled Saudis as idiots and accused Riyadh of using oil money to purchase friendships of enemies and “pagans.” He alleged that Saudis are just America’s “milk cows.” The Saudi government has applauded the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal Washington made with Tehran during the Obama era.

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