(CNSNews.com) – The sectarian-charged rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran widened Monday, with the regional rivals sniping at each other over an Iranian decision not to participate in this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca.
Iranian officials said the Sunni kingdom during bilateral discussions stipulated conditions making it impossible for Iran to take part in a “dignified” manner, including a ban on Iranian flags. President Hasan Rouhani said Saudi Arabia’s stance served the interests of “the Zionists.”
For its part, Saudi Arabia said the Iranians had demanded the right to hold demonstrations during the hajj – the annual pilgrimage that is one of Islam’s “five pillars” – and Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said Tehran would be “answerable to Allah” for its attitude.
Iran demanded the right to organize demonstrations and to have privileges that would cause chaos during the hajj. This is unacceptable,” he said during a joint press conference with his visiting British counterpart Philip Hammond in Jeddah.
“Iran’s intention from the start was to maneuver and find excuses in order to prevent its citizens from performing hajj,” Al-Jubeir said. “They are now answerable to Allah.”
The dispute comes amid a deepening rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which dates back to a succession dispute after the death of Mohammed 14 centuries ago.
The sectarian divide plays a key role in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, where Sunni- and Shia-led forces are warring for control.
In Syria, the Assad regime and its allies, primarily Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, are in the Shia camp while rebels trying to topple it are predominantly Sunnis, supported by the Sunni Gulf states. Sectarian rhetoric has been used by clerics on both sides in their references to the other.
In Yemen, a Saudi-led Sunni airstrike campaign is targeting Shia Houthi militia, supported by Iran.
The location of Islam’s most revered shrines – in Mecca and Medina – make Saudi Arabia a focal point of the religion, as reflected in the Saudi monarch’s official title, “custodian of the two holy mosques.”
The hajj brings together millions of Sunnis and Shi’ites from around the world for several days during which various rites are performed, including special prayers, animal sacrifices and a symbolic “stoning of the devil.”
Last year’s “stoning of the devil” ritual saw hundreds of Iranian pilgrims among those who were killed in a stampede, prompting Iranian leaders from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei down to lash out at the kingdom.
Relations worsened after Saudi Arabia last January executed a prominent Shia cleric, and in response Iranian mobs ransacked two Saudi diplomatic missions. Riyadh launched a diplomatic initiative aimed at isolating Iran and its Hezbollah proxy in regional, Arab and Islamic blocs.
The rift has spilled over into Saudi-U.S. relations, with prominent voices in the kingdom expressing concern that Washington is tilting towards Tehran – in the aftermath of a nuclear deal which they worry will further fuel Iran’s regional misconduct.
Announcing that Iranians will not be able to join the pilgrimage this year, Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization in a statement blamed the Saudis’ “heedless behavior in failing to respond properly to our demands.”
“We announce no pilgrim from Iran would succeed to observe hajj rituals and the consequences should be borne by Saudi government,” it said.
Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani said the Saudis had refused to accept Iran’s list of conditions for a “dignified” pilgrimage.
In a speech Monday in northwestern Iran, Rouhani tried to bring Israel into the dispute.
“Hajj, Mecca and Medina belong to all Muslims and are a platform for fulfilling the interests of the Muslim world,” state-funded Press TV quoted him as saying.
“The childish bid by those claiming to be the custodians of the two holy mosques in blocking the path of Allah and hajj as well as spreading instability in the region is meeting the interests of the Zionist regime.”
Rouhani, who is sometimes described as a “moderate,” also used the speech to condemn both the United States and Israel.
“Terrorism and murder are rooted in international Zionism and global arrogance,” he said. “However, faced with the unity and strong resistance of the Iranian nation, they failed to carry out their plots.”
Back in Saudi Arabia, commentator Khaled Batarfi in a Saudi Gazette column attributed the Iranians’ behavior to its growing isolation in the Islamic world.
“Their isolation in the Muslim world is increasing and tightening, and that may explain why their stands are becoming so aggressive, impatient, desperate and illogical,” he wrote.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia and its allies have secured condemnations of Iran and Hezbollah at meetings of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, the Arab Parliament, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The 57-member OIC bloc ended a summit in Istanbul last month with a declaration that “deplored Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of the states of the region … and its continued support for terrorism.”