The Hajj tragedy sparks a firestorm for the Saudi crown prince and new frictions with Iran

The tragedy at the Hajj in Mecca has become a virulent political controversy for Saudi Arabia, especially with its Iranian nemesis. At the center of the storm is Saudi Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior Muhammad bin Nayef—who was the focus of my recently-released Brookings Essay, “The Prince of Counterterrorism.” 

The Saudis admit that the deadly stampede last month killed 769 pilgrims. The BBC reports over 1,200 deaths have been reported through official statements and media from the 34 countries reporting casualties so far. Iran claims 464 of its citizens have already been confirmed dead and more are missing. The Saudis increasingly are on the defensive about their handling of the incident. 

Tehran blames Saudi incompetence and insensitivity for the tragedy and notes it is only the latest in a long series of such tragic accidents during the Hajj over the last several decades. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has demanded an independent investigation of the incident and warned that Iran has so far used the language of diplomacy to get the facts, but if needed “the Islamic Republic is also prepared to use the language of force.” 

Iran understands that the Kingdom’s legitimacy is based on being a competent and effective “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in Mecca and Medina (the King’s title). Discrediting the Saudi handling of the Hajj undermines the Kingdom’s prestige and legitimacy across the Islamic world. 

And Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef (MBN) has responsibility for the safety of the Hajj. The Saudis have spent billions to try to make it safe for the two million pilgrims who come each year. MBN had mobilized 100,000 security personnel to maintain law and order before the stampede. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi clergy has been quick to absolve him of any culpability and responsibility. The Grand Mufti of the Kingdom personally declared Nayef innocent of any wrongdoing and blamed the tragedy on God’s will. Iran has rejected that argument, but these statements protect MBN from criticism at home. 

The crown prince had already earned Iranian animosity when his security service engineered the capture of Ahmed Ibrahim Mughassil, the mastermind of the June 1996 Khobar terrorist attack in the Kingdom that killed 19 American servicemen. Mughassil was a military commander of the Iranian-sponsored Saudi Shia group called Hizballah Al Hejaz and had lived in Iran since the attack, where he continued to be a significant operative in Iranian subversive plots in the Arabian Peninsula. 

The prince’s agents caught him in August, when he landed in Beirut from a flight from Tehran. Mughassil was planning to attend a son’s wedding in Lebanon—but instead, he was whisked off to Riyadh, where the Ministry of Interior has been debriefing him since. According to Saudi sources, Mughassil is a wealth of information on Iranian intelligence activities, both historic and contemporary. Snatching Mughassil was a major coup for MBN and a big loss for Tehran. 

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s ally, says it recently uncovered a secret bomb factory on the island connected to Iranian intelligence. A ton and a half of explosives and automatic weapons were uncovered. The Ministry of Interior works very closely with Bahraini security services. Bahrain has withdrawn its ambassador in Tehran

The Saudi-Iranian confrontation is getting hotter than it has been in many years. The Hajj incident is going to be an open wound for months to come. Riyadh and Tehran are at loggerheads in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. The two regional powers are in a deadly embrace.