For the two great theocratic regimes that glower at each other across the Persian Gulf, Iran’s decision not to send its pilgrims to this year’s Haj marks a significant heating up of their not-so-cold war. Iran is, in essence, asserting that the House of Saud are poor guardians of the most sacred places of the Muslim ummah, or nation — the foundational legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy. Last year, 769 pilgrims were killed in a stampede during the Haj. Saudi Arabia blamed the carnage on Iranian pilgrims, saying they failed to comply with authorities’ instructions. Iran, though, refused to sign on to new terms insisted on by Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage groups. Negotiations were complicated further when the two countries severed diplomatic relations in January, following a mob attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran after the kingdom executed a prominent Shia cleric.
The showdown is about power, not just faith. Its genesis lies in Iran’s 1979 revolution, which brought Iran’s new Shia clerical-led regime into frontal confrontation with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni-theocratic order. In 1981, Iranian pilgrims chanted political slogans in the Masjid al-Haram and the Prophet’s Mosque, two of Islam’s most sacred sites, resulting in violent clashes. Tensions rose further that year when King Khalid Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia endorsed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of his eastern neighbour, calling on him to “crush these stupid Iranians”. In spite of efforts by both sides to manage tensions, matters came to a head in 1987, when 402 mainly-Iranian pilgrims were killed in clashes with Saudi security forces, after anti-Israel and anti-US protests. Iran stayed away from the Haj for three years thereafter — and, enfeebled first by the war with Iraq, then by years of sanctions, ceased to be a credible threat to Saudi Arabia’s hegemony in West Asia.
In recent years, though, Iran has emerged resurgent. Saudi Arabia faces an Iranian ballistic missile programme — which Tehran says is necessary to defend itself against vastly superior, Western-equipped Saudi forces. Its oil revenues are declining, even as its restive youth population is drawn to violent Islamism. It is increasingly worried, too, that US support can no longer be taken for granted, as the superpower seeks to balance-out its regional policy by engaging Iran and other old adversaries. For India, with energy and economic interests across both sides of the Iran-Saudi divide, the situation is a deeply uncomfortable one — a fact that has led some to call for it to interject itself as an honest broker. Wisdom, however, lies in steering clear of the morass.