Tehran (AFP) - Shiite Muslim Iran, furious that 131 of its people died in the stampede at this year's hajj, blames Sunni rival Saudi Arabia and says it is unfit to manage the pilgrimage.
Iran, which established a conservative Shiite Islamic republic in 1979 after overthrowing the pro-Western shah, has long been a rival of the equally conservative Sunni Saudi kingdom for dominance in the oil-rich Gulf.
Relations between the two regional powers further deteriorated this year, after Riyadh pulled together a coalition of Arab powers to combat Shiite rebels threatening to overrun the poor but strategically placed Sunni majority country of Yemen.
Iran backs the rebels, known as Huthis, and the Arab nations feared that Yemen could be pulled into Tehran's sphere, giving the Islamic republic a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.
So it comes as no surprise that just hours after Thursday's stampede in the Saudi city of Mina, in which 717 people were killed and 863 injured, Tehran would turn up the heat in its war of words with its rivals.
The loss of life was the largest to hit the annual Muslim pilgrimage in a quarter-century, and came just weeks after a massive construction crane collapsed on the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, killing more than 100 pilgrims already gathering for the hajj.
At the heart of Iranian criticism are claims that flawed safety measures led to Thursday's tragedy.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke of "improper measures" and "mismanagement" by Saudi authorities, saying they "must accept the huge responsibility for this catastrophe".
The head of Iran's hajj organisation, Said Ohadi, said bad decisions had led to the tragedy.
For "unknown reasons", two routes had been closed off near the site where Thursday's symbolic stoning of the devil was taking place when the stampede occurred.
That left only three routes in, Ohadi said, asserting that this forced the crowd to build up, resulting in the fatalities.
- 'Lack of attention' -
"This caused this tragic incident," he said, adding that the "events show mismanagement and lack of serious attention to the safety of pilgrims.
"There is no other explanation. The Saudi officials should be held accountable."
On Friday, Iranian authorities organised a demonstration against Saudi management of the hajj, and a senior cleric issued the most damning condemnation.
"Saudi Arabia is incapable of organising the pilgrimage," said Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, leading the main weekly prayers in Tehran.
"The running of the hajj must be handed over to (other) Islamic states," he insisted.
These are particularly strong words, given that the Saudi king's official title is "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Mecca and Medina, a key plank in the monarchy's claims to legitimacy.
"Death to al-Saud," people chanted Friday, venting their anger on the rival country's ruling family.
Thursday's horrific toll of casualties aside, almost each year tensions arise between the two countries at hajj time.
But what are usually verbal barbs spilled over into deadly violence in 1987, as Iranian pilgrims staged what had become an annual anti-American demonstration. In clashes with Saudi security forces, more than 400 people were killed, most of them Iranians.
But Amir Mohebian, an Iranian political analyst, does not believe the latest incident will lead to tensions getting out of hand, but he too criticised Riyadh.
"The Saudi war in Yemen, and the fact that the Saudi leadership is entirely focused on that conflict, is not unrelated to this accident," he said.
"The Saudis are unconcerned with the running of the hajj."
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, made a similar assessment, arguing that because Riyadh's most seasoned security forces were focused on Yemen, the hajj had got short shrift.