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Iran says not sending Haj pilgrims this year

TEHRAN/JEDDAH: Iran’s culture minister on Sunday said Iranians will not take part in this year’s Haj, set for September. More than 60,000 Iranians took part in last year's Haj.
Ali Jannati’s announcement, reported by Agence France Presse, comes two days after his delegation left the kingdom “after two series of negotiations without any results.”
Iran pointed to “obstacles” raised by Saudi Arabia, the AFP report said.
The Saudi Ministry of Haj and Umrah on Friday chided the Iranian Haj delegation for playing politics by refusing to sign the minutes of an agreement negotiated earlier this week between the two sides.
It said it had offered “many solutions” to meet a string of demands made by the Iranians in two days of talks.
Agreement had been reached in some areas, including the of use electronic visas which could be printed out by Iranian pilgrims, as Saudi diplomatic missions remain shut in Iran, it said.
Riyadh cut ties with Tehran in January after Iranian fanatics torched its embassy and a consulate following its execution of a prominent Shiite man convicted of sedition.
Despite Tehran’s politicking, Saudi Arabia remains committed to serving pilgrims from across the world, and making the journey safe and comfortable for them, the ministry said.
The ministry stated that the Iranian delegation had been made comfortable during their stay while in Jeddah, including having arrangements made for members to perform Umrah.
There had been intense discussions on Wednesday and Thursday on all issues, included having visas issued for Iranian pilgrims by the Swiss Embassy in their country, acting on behalf of the Saudi government, and equal division of pilgrims between the Saudi and Iranian national carriers.
Earlier this month, Iran had accused its regional rival of seeking to “sabotage” the Haj, a pillar of Islam that devout Muslims must perform at least once during their lifetime if they are able.
Tehran said Riyadh had insisted that visas for Iranians be issued in a third country and would not allow pilgrims to be flown aboard Iranian aircraft.
But the Saudi Haj ministry said Friday that Riyadh had agreed to allow Iranians to obtain visas through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which has looked after Saudi interests since ties were severed in January.
Riyadh also agreed to allow some Iranian carriers to fly pilgrims to the kingdom despite a ban imposed on Iranian airlines following the diplomatic row between the two countries, the ministry said.
Last week’s talks were the second attempt by the two countries to reach a deal on organizing this year’s pilgrimage for Iranians after an unsuccessful first round held in April in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi ministry said at the time that the Iranian Haj Organization would be held responsible “in front of God and the people for the inability of its pilgrims to perform Haj this year.”
Another contentious issue has been security, after a deadly stampede during last year’s Haj.

(With input from AFP)

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