This Saudi-Iran Hajj argument is turning ugly

If you were watching Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech to the UN General Assembly earlier today, you got to see him spend a relatively large part of his speech taking Saudi Arabia to task over last week’s terrible Hajj stampede. The death toll from that disaster now appears to be well over 1000, despite initial Saudi estimates in the 700s, and that includes 228 dead Iranians and another 248 still missing. Rouhani railed against the Saudis for the accident itself and for their efforts to investigate the disaster and to deal with identifying bodies and locating those who are still missing:

“Public opinion demands that Saudi Arabian officials promptly fulfill their international obligations and grant immediate consular access,” he said, referring to the difficulties Iranian officials have faced trying to obtain Saudi visas to travel to Mecca to deal with the crisis. “It is necessary to prepare for an independent and precise investigation into causes of this disaster and ways to prevent its repetition in the future.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already blamed the Saudis for the stampede last week, in comments that have as much to do with a general Iranian criticism of Saudi Arabia’s recent actions in the region and with Iran’s many historical complaints about the treatment of Iranian Shiʿa pilgrims by Saudi authorities as they do with this particular incident. Meanwhile, there is apparently a conspiracy theory taking hold in Saudi Arabia and on social media that the stampede was somehow engineered by agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The back-and-forth between the two countries over this disaster has gotten so heated that it may hinder whatever minuscule chance there was that the two rivals could find some common ground with respect to Syria.

The list of missing Iranians reportedly includes their former ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Rokanabadi, and this is where the hostility between Riyadh and Tehran has really turned nasty. The Saudis are reportedly denying that Rokanabadi or anyone with his name ever entered the country to go on Hajj, but the Iranians not only insist that he did go, they claim to have video footage of him participating in this year’s rituals.

If Rokanabadi did really go on Hajj and is truly missing, he may tragically be dead, but Iranian media is talking about the possibility that he was abducted. Rokanabadi is believed, at least by the Iranian government, to have been the target of a terrorist assassination plot in Beirut in November 2013, when two suicide bombers from Lebanon’s Al-Qaeda offshoot, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, attacked the Iranian embassy there. Since Iranian media delights in conflating the Sunni extremist Saudis with Sunni extremist terror groups like the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (and since at least one of the men behind that 2013 bombing was a Saudi national), this is naturally some pretty fertile ground for Iranian media to cover.

Even if this Rokanabadi story turns out to be a false alarm, the Hajj disaster and the slow-moving Saudi response aren’t exactly doing much for Saudi Arabia’s image in the broader Muslim world, at a time when the Saudis truly believe that they’re in a “there can be only one”-style contest with Iran for power and influence in the Middle East.

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