Iran says pilgrims to miss hajj after Saudi 'sabotage'

Tehran - Iran said Thursday its nationals will miss the annual hajj, accusing Saudi Arabia of sabotaging arrangements following a major diplomatic row and a deadly stampede at last year's pilgrimage.

A delegation from Tehran held four days of talks in Saudi Arabia last month aimed at thrashing out a deal for Iranians to go to Mecca in September.

It was the first dialogue between the region's foremost Shiite and Sunni Muslim powers since diplomatic relations were severed in January.

But with Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran still closed and Iranian flights to the kingdom halted, the talks hit deadlock.

"The arrangements have not been put together and it's now too late," Iran's Culture Minister Ali Jannati told the official IRNA news agency. "The sabotage is coming from the Saudis.

"Their attitude was cold and inappropriate. They did not accept our proposals concerning the issuing of visas or the transport and security of the pilgrims.

"Saudi officials say our pilgrims must travel to another country to make their visa applications."

Iran wants Saudi Arabia to issue visas through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has looked after Saudi interests since Riyadh broke off ties in January following the ransacking of its diplomatic missions by protesters after it executed a leading Shiite cleric.

Said Ohadi, head of the Iranian Hajj Organisation, said that Riyadh had also refused to lift a flight ban on Iranian airlines for the pilgrimage, which all capable Muslims are expected to perform at least once in their lifetime.

Another contentious issue has been security, after a massive stampede at last year's hajj killed more than 2,000 foreign pilgrims, including 464 Iranians.

Jannati's ministry of culture and Islamic guidance oversees Iran's hajj organisation which held the abortive negotiations in Saudi Arabia.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are at odds over a raft of regional issues, notably the conflicts in Syria and Yemen in which they support opposing sides.

"Unfortunately in Saudi Arabia there is a very hostile political climate towards Iran," Ohadi said.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states have been staunch backers of Syrian rebel groups who have been fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

Iran, with Russia, has been among the regime's main supporters in the conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people.

Saudi Arabia is also leading an Arab military coalition fighting Iran-backed Huthi Shiite rebels who have seized swathes of territory in Yemen.

The hajj had been a source of dispute even before last year's stampede.

In 1987, Saudi security forces suppressed an unauthorised protest by Iranian pilgrims, prompting a break in diplomatic relations that lasted until 1991.

The official death toll was more than 400, including 275 Iranians.

Iran suspended the lesser pilgrimage, umrah, which is undertaken throughout the year, in April 2015 after an alleged sexual assault on two teenage Iranian boys by Saudi police at Jeddah airport.