by Henry Johnson
The stampede in Mecca has opened the door to criticism of the Saudi monarchy and its management of a religious holiday that brings some two million Muslims to the holy city each year. Unsurprisingly, the loudest critiques have come from the Iranian government. At the heart of Iran’s discontent is the sense that the Saudis, through their mismanagement, have deliberately put Iranian pilgrims in harm’s way.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spared little time in placing blame unequivocally on the Saudis. “Saudi government must shoulder the heavy responsibility for this bitter incident,” he wrote in a statement released the same day as the incident. “Mismanagement and improper measures that were behind this tragedy should not be overlooked.”.
The Rouhani administration has also advanced the argument that the Saudis bungled the hajj. At a private breakfast event attended by LobeLog, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned the Saudi government as well, albeit from a more oblique angle. According to “some people,” Rouhani said, the Saudi government may not be “sufficiently responsible to host” the droves of Muslims that come to Mecca each year. Meanwhile, Iran’s deputy foreign minister called “Riyadh’s negligence inexcusable.”
The Saudi minister of hajj, for his part, blamed pilgrims of “African nationality” for the stampede.
The loss of Iranian life—Rouhani tallied the number at 140—prompted outrage on the streets of Tehran as well. On Friday, thousands of demonstrators lined the streets of Tehran and chanted “death to the al-Saud family.”
There is an element of accidence to the stampede that these Iranian reactions have overlooked. When two million people, all separated by language, culture, and race, descend on one city, accidents are bound to happen, though some have argued well that Saudi construction activity in Mecca has given short shrift to safety and crowd control concerns.
The strong Iranian condemnation of the Saudi government may also reflect deep disappointment with Saudi foreign policy. Rouhani even traced the Saudi “ineptitude” in stewarding the hajj with its regional agenda: “Some people believe that because Saudi Arabia has sent troops to the border with Yemen,” there is a “lack of manpower” to handle the hajj.
Geopolitics alone doesn’t explain the depth of hard feelings between Riyadh and Tehran. History looms even heavier over the present squabbles.
In the 1987 hajj, hundreds of Iranian pilgrims died in clashes with Saudi security forces. By the Saudi estimate, the confrontations led to the death of 275 Iranians, 42 pilgrims from other countries, and 85 Saudi policemen, as well as the injury of over 600. Iran claimed that 600 of its pilgrims were killed and 4,500 injured. According to Saudi and some eyewitness sources, the Iranians took control of the Grand Mosque, beating down anyone putting up resistance, parading portraits of Khomeini, and distributing revolutionary pamphlets. According to Iranian officials and eyewitnesses, Saudi security forces rained bullets and tear gas on the pilgrims in an unprovoked attack. Saudi Arabia delayed the return of the bodies and denied access to any international inspectors.
Twenty-eight years later, the circumstances of the tragedy may have changed, but the basic arguments remain the same. The Saudis have once again blamed the pilgrims while the Iranians have pointed fingers at the Saudis.
But the rivalry has changed in one subtle yet historic way. The Iranians no longer view the U.S. as a global villain and catch-all source of problems in the Islamic world. In response to the 1987 hajj incident, then-chairman of the parliament Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said, “We have no doubt that this massacre was undertaken at America’s behest in response to its repeated humiliations in the gulf.” This time around, Iran has reserved all of its accusations for the Saudis.