Iran on Sunday canceled its participation in this year’s holy pilgrimage to Mecca, blaming Saudi Arabia for the cancellation.
“Unfortunately, Iranian pilgrims cannot go to Hajj this year,” Iranian culture minister Ali Jannati told state television.
Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization blamed “Saudi sabotage” for the cancellation.
“Despite all the Islamic Republic’s efforts, the Saudis ignored the absolute right of the Iranians to perform the hajj rituals,” it said in a statement.
The annual pilgrimage takes place in the western Saudi city, the holiest in Islam.
The decision followed months of talks over how Iranians would obtain Saudi visas after Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Iran in January. The break was a response to attacks on Saudi diplomatic compounds in Iran by people angry with the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and activist.
Despite several visits to Saudi Arabia to negotiate visas and other logistics for the September hajj by Iranian officials including Saeed Ohadi, the head of its hajj organization, the two sides failed to reach a deal to resolve differences over issues including how visas would be issued.
Iranian officials insisted on having visas issued in Iran, while Saudi officials countered that Iranians could apply for and receive hajj visas through an online portal.
An Iranian official suggested this month that time had run out to adequately plan Iranian participation in the hajj, prompting Saudi’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah to blame Iran for instigating any disruption.
The Saudi cabinet later criticized Iran for allegedly politicizing a religious rite.
“The kingdom rejects Iranian attempts aimed at putting obstacles to prevent the arrival of Iranian pilgrims in order to politicize hajj and use it to insult Saudi Arabia,” it said in a statement on the official Saudi Press Agency.
Iran last boycotted the pilgrimage for three years between 1988 and 1990, after clashes between Shiite pilgrims and Saudi security forces killed more than 400 Iranians during the 1987 hajj. The event also led Saudi Arabia to lower the maximum number of Iranians approved to take the hajj to 45,000.
Travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj is tightly controlled, with visas granted based on agreements between Saudi Arabia and other countries. About 64,000 Iranians participated in last year’s hajj, a religious duty that able-bodied Muslims are called upon to perform at least once in their lifetime.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have risen sharply since last year, in part due to disputes over Saudi Arabia’s handling of the hajj and off-season pilgrimages called umrah.
Allegations that Saudi security personnel molested two Iranian boys returning from umrah last March led Iran to briefly suspend umrah pilgrimages pending an investigation. A Saudi court sentenced two men over the incident in June.
The death of more than 400 Iranians last September in the worst stampede in the hajj’s history further stoked Iranian anger at Saudi Arabia. Iranian officials criticized Riyadh for failing to manage large crowds properly and ensure pilgrims’ safety.
Enmity between the countries peaked early this year, after Iranian demonstrators angry about Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Nemer al-Nemer stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and set parts of it ablaze.
Several Saudi allies followed suit after it severed diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran, downgrading their own relations with the kingdom.