The group of expelled media team with the head of Iran's broadcasting (C). May 29, 2024

Saudi Arabia Expels Iranian Media Team Sent for Hajj Coverage

Wednesday, 05/29/2024

In a move against Iran’s attempts to politicize religious pilgrimages, Saudi Arabia has expelled six members of a media group linked to the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

This follows Khamenei's recent emphasis on encouraging political activities among pilgrims during this year's Hajj, raising concerns about the Islamic Republic's efforts to spread its propaganda.

Iranian media reported that the individuals were detained while filming a program in Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, a holy site in Saudi Arabia where political activities are strictly prohibited. They were dispatched by an office controlled by Khamenei that deals with Hajj affairs.

The group were detained in Saudi Arabia for a week before being released and sent back to Iran, according to Iranian media reports.

The group, which includes former director of IRGC-linked Ofogh TV Salim Ghafouri, Shafi' Sho'lekar, Mehdi Mo'ayedi, Mehdi Amiri, Pouria Soleimanzadeh, and Alireza Taban, were reportedly sent to Dubai on Tuesday evening and arrived in Iran the following day.

The head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) personally welcomed the team at Tehran’s airport and confirmed that the six members were sent back to Iran following the intervention of Saudi authorities.

Jebelli said he was unaware of the reason for the arrests, but noted that the group had been expelled from Saudi Arabia without performing the Hajj pilgrimage.

He also stated that Iranian authorities, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Supreme Leader's Representative for Hajj Affairs, and the Iranian Embassy in Saudi Arabia, had been following up on the matter.

He emphasized that Iranian media personnel are regularly sent to perform the Hajj pilgrimage legally and that this incident was unprecedented.

In November, Saudi Arabia temporarily barred Iranian propagandist Ali-Akbar Raefipour from leaving the country as he tried to return to Iran after Hajj pilgrimage. Hardliner Raefipour who promotes apocalyptic views based on Shiite eschatology and the coming of promised savior Mahdi is known for his conspiracy theories.

According to IRIB News, Saudi police also arrested two more Iranian journalists, one from Al-Alam News Network and the other from IRIB News Agency, two days after detaining the first group.

The journalists were reportedly arrested "without cause" as they were getting out of their car to attend a Du'a' Kumayl ceremony, a mainly Shiite supplication, at the Iranian pilgrims' hotel.

IRIB did not provide any information on the whereabouts or condition of the two detained journalists.

Also on Wednesday, Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reported that other Iranian journalists reporting on the Hajj pilgrimage remain in Saudi Arabia and have not faced any issues.

Iran has traditionally tried to politicize the hajj pilgrimage by organizing marches, chanting and demonstrations by pilgrims.

Earlier in May, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered yet another anti-US and anti-Israeli speech, implicitly also attacking Saudi Arabia, saying that "Anyone who extends a hand of friendship to America and Israel is an oppressor."

The May 6 speech that was meant to be a guide for Iranians planning to go to Hajj pilgrimage turned out to be mainly about regional issues linked to the possible rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Referring to a term coined by his predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini, "Distancing from the infidels," which strained ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia and resulted in the death and injury of tens of pilgrims due to the chaos caused by Iranian government agents in Mecca during the Haj pilgrimage in 1987, Khamenei described this year's Haj agenda for Iranian pilgrims as "distancing from the criminal Zionist enemy and its supporters."

This marked a return to the hostile rhetoric that was softened by Khamenei when Iran resumed its ties with Saudi Arabia in early 2023 after seven years, in a China brokered deal between the two countries.

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