Iran and Saudi Arabia Squabble as Millions of Muslims Begin Pilgrimage

Source: The New York Times

By

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As Muslims from around the world head toward Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage, Saudi Arabia and Iran have escalated their sectarian rivalry over which country represents the true Islam.

Iran unleashed the first barb Monday, when the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Saudi Arabia of deliberately killing pilgrims during last year’s hajj. He called for the world’s Muslims to reconsider Saudi control of the holy sites.

Saudi Arabia answered back on Tuesday, when the kingdom’s top cleric said that Iran’s leaders “are not Muslims.”

The spat underlines the deep religious and strategic rivalry between Shiite-led Iran and the Sunni royal family of Saudi Arabia that has put the two Middle Eastern powers on opposite sides of the wars in Yemen and Syria, and has them competing to undermine each other’s influence in the region.

The latest undiplomatic flare up comes just before the anniversary of a human crush during last year’s pilgrimage that left more than 2,400 people dead, including hundreds of Iranians, according to a count by The Associated Press. Saudi Arabia’s official death toll remains at 769, which it has not updated since just after the event.

The two countries broke off diplomatic relations in January after Iranian rioters stormed Saudi diplomatic missions to protest Saudi Arabia’s execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Talks aimed at allowing Iranian pilgrims to participate in this year’s hajj also broke down, so no Iranians will attend.

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