The quarrel over sexual-harassment accusations comes at a time of heightened tensions over sectarian fighting in Yemen.
TEHRAN — As hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Monday, Iran ordered a halt on pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca in response to accusations that two teenage boys were sexually harassed by airport officials in Saudi Arabia last month.
The ban on religious travel, ordered by President Hassan Rouhani, applies to umrah, a pilgrimage that can be taken to Mecca any time of the year. It is unclear whether it will be extended to the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that this year takes place in September.
About 500,000 Iranians visit Mecca each year, often in trips booked long in advance.
In March, two teenage boys were separated from their families during an airport security check. Initially Iranian organizations, including the Red Crescent, said the boys had been raped by two Saudi airport officials. But Iranian government officials later corrected those reports, saying the two boys had been sexually harassed.
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“Until these guilty people are put on trial and punished, the umrah will be stopped and Iranian flights will be suspended,” the semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency cited Culture Minister Ali Jannati as saying.
The quarrel over the sexual-harassment accusations comes at a time of heightened tensions over sectarian fighting in Yemen.
The Saudis are leading a coalition of 10 nations in a bombing campaign there, and have threatened a ground invasion to repel the advances of Houthi rebels, who they claim are supported by Tehran.
Some of the coalition’s members, particularly Egypt, have also stressed the need to counter what they see as Iran’s increasing influence in the region, which they fear could be strengthened if economic sanctions on Tehran are lifted as part of a potential nuclear deal.
On Monday, Iran further inflamed relations by urging the formation of a new Yemeni government and offering to assist in a political transition. Those comments were seen as anathema to the Saudis, who are trying to shore up support for the former president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was driven from power last month by the Houthis.
Last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was unusually direct in his criticism of Saudi Arabia, saying its leaders are “inexperienced youths” and its policies are “like that of the Zionists in Gaza.”
Both nations are increasingly engaged in a series of sectarian proxy wars throughout the region, pitting Sunnis against Shiites in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. In Iraq, however, they are nominal allies in the fight against the extremist Sunni group, the Islamic State.