Tehran has suspended all off-season pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia and amid allegations that Iranians were sexually assaulted while en route to Islamic holy sites.
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has ordered its cultural ministry to put on hold until further notice any Umrah trips, also known as “lesser pilgrimages”, which see around 500,000 Iranians visiting Mecca throughout the year. The ban excludes Hajj, the major pilgrimage, which takes place in the last month of the Islamic calendar and is compulsory for fit and healthy Muslims to undertake at least once if they can afford it.
Relations between Tehran and Riyadh, already strained over the Saudi-led military campaign in , have been further strained over reports that two unnamed teenage Iranian pilgrims were sexually assaulted in Jeddah airport two weeks ago. It sparked protests at the Saudi embassy in Tehran last week.
“We have been in touch with Saudi officials through our diplomatic channels regarding the regrettable incident that took place in Jeddah airport and they have promised to punish the perpetrators,” said Ali Jannati, Iran’s minister for culture and Islamic guidance, according to the semi-official Isna news agency. “They’ve told us that they would execute the perpetrators but nothing has happened yet.”
Iran and are at odds over the conflict in Yemen between Houthi rebels allied with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and forces loyal to the ousted president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Houthis have gained control over the capital Sana’a and are now engaged in street fighting in Aden.
Saudis and their Sunni Arab allies view Houthi fighters – who belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia – as Iranian proxies and have accused Tehran of giving them military backing, a charge Iranians vehemently deny.
Since last month, Saudi Arabia has launched air strikes to reinstate Hadi and counter Houthi advances but they have not achieved much in pushing rebels back. At least 600 people, including children, have died, according to the United Nations.
Riyadh’s military intervention is backed by the United States and Britain but Tehran has condemned it, with the . At the weekend, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, rejected Tehran’s call for a ceasefire in Yemen.
“How can Iran call for us to stop the fighting in Yemen?” at a press conference in Riyadh with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius. “We came to Yemen to help the legitimate authority, and Iran is not in charge of Yemen.”
Last week, Pakistan’s parliament dealt a blow to Saudi hopes of a ground invasion in Yemen in the conflict.
On Sunday, Hadi in which he echoed Saudi accusations against Iran and described Houthi rebels as “puppets of the Iranian government”. Hadi likened alleged Iranian support for Houthis to its backing of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
“My country, Yemen, is under siege by radical Houthi militia forces whose campaign of horror and destruction is fuelled by the political and military support of an Iranian regime obsessed with regional domination,” Hadi wrote. “There is no question that the chaos in Yemen has been driven by Iran’s hunger for power and its ambition to control the entire region.”
The UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, has called for dialogue. “In Yemen, I have strongly objected to the Houthis attempting to control the country by force. This is unacceptable. But I am also deeply concerned about the military escalation,” he said in Qatar’s capital, Doha, at the weekend. “The internal crisis in Yemen should not be allowed to grow into a protracted regional conflict. We urgently need a de-escalation and a return to peaceful negotiations.”