Iran-Saudi Haj talks halted ‘due to visa hurdle’

The closure of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its mission in Iran’s second city Mashhad means there are currently no visas being issued to Iranians

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TEHRAN // Talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia on this year’s Haj pilgrimage have stalled because of a disagreement on how visas can be processed in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.

An Iranian delegation last week travelled to Saudi Arabia – which cut ties with Tehran in January – to discuss the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy places in the kingdom.

According to Said Ohadi, head of the Iranian Haj Organisation, said four days of negotiations had achieved progress on security issues and travel to the kingdom.

But the shutting down of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the kingdom’s mission in Iran’s second city Mashhad means there are currently no visas being issued to Iranians.

“The problem of visa issuance has not been solved yet,” said Mr Ohadi. “Saudi Arabia has not yet offered a clear solution.”

Tehran wants visas to be issued inside Iran.

In the absence of its own representatives, Switzerland looks after the interests of Saudi Arabia inside Iran.

He said Saudi Arabia had agreed that Iranian aircraft could land for the Haj, an exception since all flights from the Islamic republic were barred after the diplomatic crisis.

Security was another contentious issue in the talks.

The death of hundreds of pilgrims, including 464 Iranians, in the stampede at last year’s Haj caused a major spike in tensions between Tehran and Riyadh, who back opposing sides in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.

“The Saudis offered good solutions on security,” introducing electronic tracking bracelets for all Haj participants, Mr Ohadi said.

The Iranian delegation was due back in Tehran on Tuesday.

Other officials in Tehran also waded into the row.

“Saudi Arabia is stonewalling on the visa issue,” culture minister Ali Jannati said on Monday.

“We say that if the Swiss government is protecting your interests in Iran, then it should issue visas too. Issuing visas in a third country is absolutely unacceptable for us.”

This year’s pilgrimage to Mecca is due to take place in September.

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran in January after its diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were stormed and set alight by mobs angry at the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and activist, Nimr Al Nimr.

Riyadh’s regional allies followed suit with the UAE and Kuwait recalling their ambassador to Iran, while Bahrain and Sudan all severed diplomatic ties with Tehran.

Oman also expressed regret at attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, but stopped short of recalling its ambassador or cutting ties.

* Agence France-Presse