The Sept. 24 stampede in the Saudi Arabian city of Mina during the hajj pilgrimage has become another fault line in the Middle East’s most contentious rivalry. Iran, which suffered 464 deaths in the tragedy, had one of the highest death tolls. The Associated Press reports total fatalities of 2,177, a figure disputed by Saudi officials, who place the number at 769.
Most troublesome for Iran, 28 individuals are still unaccounted for, including Iran’s former ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will raise the issue with both the United Nations and the International Red Cross, according to Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs.
Abdollahian said Iranian hajj officials have inquired about Roknabadi’s status to Saudi officials and the Saudi charge d'affairs in Tehran has also been asked about the matter.
Roknabadi’s brother, Morteza, said in a Nov. 4 interview with IR Diplomacy that Zarif had written a letter to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir inquiring about Ghazanfar Roknabadi’s status. Morteza Roknabadi said he did not know if a response has been given. The article said that, given Ghazanfar Roknabadi’s history, “Speculation about his abduction is not far from expectations.”
Roknabadi was the target of a 2013 bombing at Iran’s embassy in Lebanon and some Iranian media have accused Saudi Arabia of kidnapping the former ambassador to interrogate him about Iran’s activities in Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia and Iran compete for influence. The suspect in the 2013 bombing was a Saudi national belonging to al-Qaeda. A day after being taken to a military hospital in Lebanon, the suspect died, reportedly of kidney disease.
Morteza said that the last time any Iranian official had seen his brother alive was when Ghazanfar was put into an ambulance belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry. According to an official who works with the Iranian hajj organization, rescue workers had tried to put another Iranian in the ambulance along with Roknabadi, but the driver would not permit it. Morteza Roknabadi said Saudi security and plainclothes officials had arrived at the scene immediately; some helped with the rescue effort while others surveyed the scene.
Saudi officials have not publicly addressed Ghazanfar Roknabadi's situation, but Saudi-funded Al Arabiya said that, according to Saudi sources, Roknabadi had entered the country under a false name.
Tensions over the stampede have become so high that when Iranian and Saudi officials are in the same room, arguments erupt. During a Nov. 3 meeting of Islamic culture ministers in Muscat, Oman, the Saudi and Iranian ministers exchanged accusations against one another. Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati has said the hajj pilgrimage should not be limited to Saudi management and has called for each country to manage its own hajj affairs. Saudi Culture Minister Adel al-Tarifi said Iran was turning a cultural issue into a political one.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged Iranian officials to continue to raise the issue of the stampede and seek answers. He also claimed that, contrary to other reports, 7,000 people were killed in the stampede.
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