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Iran Suspends Pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans in front of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran to protest alleged abuse of two male Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, April 11, 2015.

Iranian officials said Monday they will stop sending pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the minor Islamic pilgrimage, Umra, after allegations that Saudi authorities mistreated two Iranian pilgrims last month at Jeddah airport. The decision comes amid growing regional tensions between the two countries that back opposing sides in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.

Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati told Iranian TV that Riyadh must punish border guards who allegedly assaulted Iranian pilgrims last month before Iran will allow more of its citizens to take part in the minor pilgrimage.

He said Saudi border guards molested two Iranian teenagers at Jeddah airport last month and went on to say the men should be given the death penalty.

Iranian media reported two young male pilgrims were sodomized by the Saudi border guards. Saudi Arabia has not officially commented on the allegations, but Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian told Iranian TV several days ago that Riyadh has promised to punish the alleged culprits.

Witnesses said a large crowd of Iranians protested in front of the Saudi embassy Saturday in Tehran.

In another development reported by Iran's Press TV reported several days ago, an Iranian plane carrying pilgrims was not allowed to land in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities said the plane did not have appropriate permissions.

Iranian analyst and former diplomat Mehrdad Khonsari told VOA Iran is upset about mistreatment of its citizens in Saudi Arabia, but that it is not really in Tehran's interest to suspend the pilgrimage for too long.

“Sending people to Hajj is a big source of income for the [Iranian] government, and it is something that has always been a contentious issue with the Saudis," he said. "The Iranians have always wanted to send more pilgrims than the Saudis wanted, so if they suspend this, they are in essence doing something that the Saudis have wanted all along.”

Khonsari added that the issue of the pilgrims is part of the larger political conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.

He argued that “neither Iran nor the Saudis want things to escalate beyond a war of words, and are seeking diplomatic ways to resolve it.”

He stressed that both sides know “a political settlement must be found to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen."

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