Iran insists on banning own citizens from Hajj

Iran said it will not allow its citizens from taking part in this year's Hajj pilgrimage and blamed it on Saudi officials

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Saudi Arabia on Sunday denounced as "unacceptable" Iranian demands over its pilgrims joining the annual Islamic hajj this year, after Tehran accused Riyadh of raising obstacles.

"Iran has demanded the right to organize... demonstrations and to have privileges... that would cause chaos during the hajj. This is unacceptable," Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in a joint press briefing with his British counterpart Philip Hammond.

Tehran said earlier on Sunday that Iranians will miss the pilgrimage this year to Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia, and accused Riyadh of "blocking the path to Allah".

“After two series of negotiations without any results because of obstacles raised by the Saudis, Iranian pilgrims will unfortunately not be able to take part in the hajj" pilgrimage, expected this year in September, Iranian culture minister Ali Jannati told state television.

Jubeir said Saudi Arabia annually signs a hajj memorandum of understanding with more than 70 countries "to guarantee the security and safety of pilgrims".

"This year, Iran refused to sign the memorandum," he said, arguing that Riyadh has agreed to facilitate the travel arrangements of Iranian pilgrims despite having no diplomatic ties or air links.

"It is very negative if Iran's intention from the start was to manoeuvre and find excuses, in order to prevent its citizens from performing the hajj," he said.

"If it is about measures and procedures, I think we have done more than our duty to meet those needs, but it is the Iranians who have rejected things," he added.

Saudi officials have said an Iranian delegation wrapped up a visit to the kingdom on Friday without reaching a final agreement on arrangements for hajj pilgrims from the Islamic republic.

The Saudi hajj ministry said it had offered "many solutions" to meet a string of demands made by the Iranians in two days of talks.

Agreement had been reached in some areas, including to use electronic visas which could be printed out by Iranian pilgrims, as Saudi diplomatic missions remain shut in Iran, it said.

Riyadh cut ties with Tehran in January after Iranian demonstrators torched its embassy and a consulate following its execution of a prominent Shiite preacher.

Earlier this month, Iran had accused its regional rival of seeking to "sabotage" the hajj, a pillar of Islam that devout Muslims must perform at least once during their lifetime if they are able.

Tehran said Riyadh had insisted that visas for Iranians be issued in a third country and would not allow pilgrims to be flown aboard Iranian aircraft.

But the Saudi hajj ministry said Friday that Riyadh had agreed to allow Iranians to obtain visas through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has looked after Saudi interests since ties were severed in January.

Riyadh also agreed to allow some Iranian carriers to fly pilgrims to the kingdom despite a ban imposed on Iranian airlines following the diplomatic row between the two countries, the ministry said.

Last week's talks were the second attempt by the two countries to reach a deal on organizing this year's pilgrimage for Iranians after an unsuccessful first round held in April in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi ministry said at the time that the Iranian Hajj Organization would be held responsible "in front of God and the people for the inability of its pilgrims to perform hajj this year."

Riyadh –based journalist Yahya Al-Amir told Al Arabiya News Channel’s Four O'clock bulletin that the Iranian leadership’s refusal to sign the hajj agreement reflects its attempts to politicize the religious occasion.

Among Arab and Islamic states, Al-Amir said Iran was the only country that refused the agreement, adding that the motive behind that is political.

The journalist claimed that if the Iranian leadership was unable to exploit Hajj for political reasons “then the regime in Tehran absolutely does not want pilgrimage.”

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