Journey To Mecca
Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mecca October 1, 2014.Reuters

Sparking another row of dispute over Islamic pilgrimage sites, an Iranian cleric launched a scathing attack asking for the removal of Saudi Arabia from the custodianship of Islam's two holiest sites - Mecca and Medina.

The senior Islamic leader, Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, told a group of Iranian seminary students that custodians of the Mecca-Medina "should be men of piety," semi-official state news agency Mehr reported.

"The current Saudi custodians however are the decedents of those who turned it to a house of idols and indulged themselves in drunken revelry; those were the grand-grand fathers of the current custodians, whom lost in gambling the custodianship or traded it for few wineskins," asserted Amoli, an influential scholar, referring to the early history of the House.

Relations between the two rival Islamic countries have long been strained and the rhetoric has become more heated since Saudi Arabia decided to lead a military coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The senior Iranian cleric, who in his speech also denounced Saudi coalition against Yemen, asked Muslims to free Mecca and Medina from the "servitude and the looting of the Saudi regime."

"[T]he Islamic nations should not wait for concrete action by their governments; rather, they should take the matter into their own hands, which would be properly titled 'the Greater Striving'," the Shiite scholar demanded.

Impending Clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia

It has been over 36 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power and since then his teachings have come to define the country's policy.

Jonathan D Halevi, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, notes that in the first decade of his rule, Khomeini set the tone for Iran-Saudi relations during which he had challenged the legitimacy of the Saudi regime to serve as the protector of the Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

And the assertions of Khomeini still remain authoritative and frame the way Iran views Saudi Arabia, which means that it is only a matter of time before these two regional power engage in an all-out clash, Halevi observed.

Recent Spats

Recently, Tehran suspended all off-season pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia over allegations that two Iranians boys were sexually assaulted while en route to the Islamic holy sites.

At present, Iran has ordered its cultural ministry to put on hold any Umrah trips, also known as "lesser pilgrimages", which see around five lakh Iranians visiting Mecca every year.

Following this Saudi has reportedly stopped issuing visas to Iranian pilgrims. Recently, according to New York Times, at least two flights transporting pilgrims from Iran to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, were denied permission to land.