The government of Iran has assembled thousands in the capital, Tehran, to protest Saudi Arabia over a stampede that killed thousands at last year’s hajj pilgrimage. While Iranian media claim the protests were against the Sunni leaders of Riyadh and Bahrain, protesters were seen carrying anti-American and anti-Israel signs.
Iran’s Press TV cites the Iranian Islamic Propagation Coordination Council as having the data on the event the night before, estimating “more than 850 places where Friday Prayers take place” across Iran would stage protests against Saudi Arabia. “Iranian demonstrators will chant ‘Down with Al Saud and Al Khalifah’ to show their anger at the inhumane conduct of the two repressive regimes,” Press TV reported last night, referring to the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. While Bahrain is a majority Shiite nation, its leaders are Sunni Muslims. Iran is the world’s largest Shiite majority nation.
The “Death to Al Saud!” chants sounded in Tehran on Friday, the Associated Press reports, as well as chants against Bahrain’s government. While Bahrain has nothing to do with the hajj, it has recently taken measures to silence radical Shiite clerics, who the Iranian government typically supports.
The Washington Post notes that many of the protesters turned their ire towards the United States and Israel despite the nominal protest against Saudi Arabia. “We don’t have any problems with the people of Saudi Arabia. They are Sunnis and are our brothers, but the Al Saud family are puppets of Britain and America,” protester Habibullah Abulfazli told the Post. “They are fighting proxy wars against Shiites and against all Muslims.”
The Post highlights protest signs featuring Saudi King Salman wearing an American flag and a Star of David. In Press TV’s report, photos show posters reading “Down with USA/Down with Israel.”
These protests are the product of a week-long agitation campaign by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei which began on Monday, when he called for other Muslim nations to take Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty over Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, away. He urged Muslim leaders to “fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj,” which also includes the city of Medina.
In a second speech, Khamenei referred to Saudi Arabia’s royal family as “puny Satans” and accuses them of causing the stampede that killed thousands last year. The hajj, a mandatory pilgrimage in Islam and one of the religion’s “Five Pillars,” occurs once a year in Mecca. Last year, thousands were crushed in a stampede – Saudi Arabia puts the death toll at 770 people, while Iran official claims over 4,000 dead. The Ayatollah alleged 7,000 had died in his “puny Satans” speech.
The Associated Press’s official estimate is 2,426 deaths.
Khamenei has also blamed America for the stampede, declaring, “USA’s hands are stained with the blood of those tragically martyred in Mina.”
Saudi Arabia claims that Iranian pilgrims were to blame for the stampede after breaking the rules and not waiting their turn. The Saudis have also responded to the latest barrage of criticism from Iran by dismissing Iranians as “not Muslims.” In a statement earlier this week, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, the nation’s highest-ranking Muslim cleric, said of Iran: “We must understand they are not Muslims, for they are the descendants of Majuws [Zoroastrians]. Their enmity toward Muslims, especially the Sunnis, is very old.”
He called the criticism “not surprising.”
Other Sunni nations have largely supported Saudi Arabia. In a stern statement, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) head Abdullatif Al-Zayani accused Iran of a “desperate attempt to politicize” the hajj “totally incompatible with the values and precepts of Islam.”
The hajj will conclude on Sunday, September 11. Iranian citizens were banned from attending this year as a result of the stampede last year.