Iran-Saudi hajj talks halted because of visa hurdle

Tehran (AFP) - Talks between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia on this year's hajj pilgrimage have stalled because of a disagreement on how visas can be processed when no formal diplomatic relations exist.

An Iranian delegation last week travelled to Saudi Arabia, which cut ties in January, for discussions on the pilgrimage to the Muslim holy places in the kingdom.

Said Ohadi, head of the Iranian Hajj Organisation, said on state television late Monday that four days of negotiations had achieved progress on security issues and travel to the kingdom.

But the lack of a functioning Saudi embassy in Tehran -- both it and the kingdom's mission in Iran's second city Mashhad are closed -- means there are currently no visas being issued to Iranians.

"The problem of visa issuance has not been solved yet," said Ohadi. "Saudi Arabia has not yet offered a clear solution."

Tehran wants visas to be issued inside the Islamic republic.

In the absence of its own representatives, Switzerland looks after the interests of the Sunni-dominated kingdom in mainly Shiite Iran.

Ohadi said the foreign ministry had offered to provide "all means necessary" to help Saudi Arabia issue visas inside Iran but did not elaborate on how that could be done in the absence of an embassy or consulate.

He said Saudi Arabia had agreed that Iranian aircraft could land for the hajj, an exception since all flights from the Islamic republic were barred after the diplomatic crisis.

Security was another contentious issue in the talks, after a massive stampede in last year's hajj killed more than 2,000 foreign pilgrims, including 464 Iranians.

"The Saudis offered good solutions on security," introducing electronic tracking bracelets for all hajj participants, Ohadi said.

The Iranian delegation was expected back in Tehran later on Tuesday.

Other officials in Tehran also waded into the row.

"Saudi Arabia is stonewalling on the visa issue," Culture Minister Ali Jannati said on Monday.

"We say that if the Swiss government is protecting your interests in Iran, then it should issue visas too. Issuing visas in a third country is absolutely unacceptable for us."

Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran on January 3 after its diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were stormed and set alight by mobs following Riyadh's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and activist, Nimr al-Nimr.

This year's pilgrimage to Mecca -- a trip that all Muslims who are able to are expected to perform at least once in their lifetime -- is due to take place in September.