On Friday he suggested before an audience of U.S. media that Saudi military intervention in Yemen deprived the kingdom of experienced manpower, leaving authorities unable to adequately oversee the annual influx of millions of pilgrims.
Although Rouhani, at a session with U.S. political analysts and Iran experts on Sunday, acknowledged that “we do not know all the underlying causes and do not want to pass judgment,” social media in the region has exploded with blame and conspiracy theories. Some Saudis claimed that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were responsible for the stampede, while Iranians alleged that their countrymen were singled out because of differences over religion and regional affairs. Some Iranians called for a multilateral organization of Muslim countries to oversee the Hajj instead of the Saudis.
The timing of the new crisis could hardly be worse, given the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria and the world’s continuing inability to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The fighting has created the biggest exodus of refugees since World War II and put huge burdens on many states, including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.
Europe has been overwhelmed by refugees who are risking their lives to find stable new homes. On Monday the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq sent an email warning that it has exhausted its ability to care for more than 250,000 Syrian refugees and 1.5 million internally displaced people from other parts of Iraq.
Without some meeting of the minds between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is hard to see how the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen can be successfully addressed. Iran and Russia appear to be doubling down on support for the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression fueled the uprising against him. Rouhani on Sunday said that while the Syrian regime needs to be “reformed,” the first priority has to be defeating ISIL. In his speech on Monday, he again called for support for “established central governments” to destroy the group.
In recent weeks, the U.S. and European powers have shown a willingness to soften previous demands that Assad depart swiftly as part of a political solution to the war in Syria. President Barack Obama, addressing the General Assembly on Monday, said that there could be a “managed transition” in Syria but that after so much “bloodshed and carnage, there cannot be a return to the prewar status quo.”
While Obama said the U.S. was prepared to work with Iran and Russia to reach a political solution in Syria, the Saudis have continued to reject the inclusion of Iran in a U.S.-led coalition against ISIL and rebuffed bilateral talks with Iran, even before the recent crisis over the Hajj.
In 2013, in his first press conference after taking office, Rouhani said his top priority would be improving Iranian relations with the Saudis and other Sunni Arab powers, which deteriorated during the belligerent and erratic presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Abdullah, the Saudi King at the time, sent Rouhani a letter “the next day [expressing] gratitude” for the remarks, the Iranian president said on Sunday. But after Abdullah died in January, “conditions really changed tangibly in Saudi Arabia.”