Thousands of Iranian pilgrims were stranded at the Iran-Iraq border in mid-September as they staged for the Arbaeen pilgrimage, an Islamic Republic-sponsored event marking the 40th day after the anniversary of the martyrdom of the third Shia imam, Hussein ibn Ali, in the Battle of Karbala. Reports about turmoil and instability at the border precipitated by the influx of crowds of pilgrims and the unpreparedness of the Iranian authorities were widespread in the run-up to the pilgrimage in neighboring Iraq.
In one incident on September 11, 10 Iranian pilgrims died as the van carrying them crashed and exploded. On September 9, Iran’s Red Crescent Society confirmed the death of nine pilgrims in Karbala. While it didn’t elaborate on the cause, they are believed to have suffered from heatstroke. The Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Mohammad Kazem Al-e Sadeq, on September 19 reported that at least a hundred Iranians died during the Arbaeen march due to a confluence of reasons, including traffic accidents, underlying health conditions, and old age.
While the ambassador – and Iranian authorities in general – tried to avoid criticizing Iraqi authorities’ management of the proceedings inside Iraq, pilgrims, including an overwhelming number of Iranians, were less reserved. They complained about the alarming scarcity of drinking water, lack of makeshift tents for sleeping, paucity of reliable transportation options, insufficient hygiene, and even the unavailability of washrooms along the route. There were also reports of them facing mistreatment by Iraqi authorities.
The Arbaeen pilgrimage is a nearly 50-mile walk from the city of Najaf in central Iraq to Karbala, where the mausoleum of Imam Hussein is located. Many Iranians traveled by vehicle to get to the border and started their march in Iraqi territory. Many others, wishing a more relaxed expedition, boarded flights from Tehran to Najaf and then embarked on the parade to participate in the mourning ceremonies at the shrine.
While some version of Arbaeen has been celebrated for centuries, its most recent, post-Saddam Hussein incarnation, is largely the brainchild of Iran. In recent years, the Iranian leadership has been hyping publicity and making large investments to incorporate the Arbaeen pilgrimage into the country’s religious tradition and political discourse, to swell the numbers of pilgrims. This is in part an effort by Iran to project its soft power in the Arab world by marshaling millions of people to undertake the long spiritual journey.
Iranian authorities have touted Arbaeen as a counterbalancing force to try to rival the importance of the annual hajj pilgrimage, when millions of Muslims throng the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia to fulfill one of the essential pillars of the Islamic faith. The difference is that the hajj is a religious injunction for Muslims regardless of their denomination, while Arbaeen is a tradition cherished by Shia Muslims.
As Iran beefs up its competition with Saudi Arabia for pre-eminence in the Muslim world, it has sought avenues to outshine the kingdom and project its influence over the world’s Shias and the broader community of Muslims. In addition, given its grievances against the Saudis, both real and manufactured, for not being a competent host for the annual hajj and failing to ensure the safety of the pilgrims, especially following the 2015 Mina stampede, in which at least 464 Iranians were killed, Iran has sought to magnify the importance of and instrumentalize Arbaeen in this soft power rivalry with Saudi Arabia.
But with chaos and disorder eclipsing this year’s Arbaeen pilgrimage, many Iranians have highlighted how the government in Tehran, failing to improve the economy and revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, was incapable of even delivering an ideological project it itself took on and propagated.
The main target of such critiques has been the hard-line administration of President Ebrahim Raisi and his officials, who are widely perceived to be inexperienced with scant administrative qualifications and who have been appointed to ministerial and other top-tier positions mostly on account of their ideological, revolutionary credentials. Iranians have also criticized the lavish expenditures spent on organizing the march, which they say were unnecessary and poorly administered and should instead have been spent at home to address lingering health-care, education, housing, and transportation crises overwhelming a cash-strapped economy.
Government guidelines require each of Iran’s 31 provinces to mobilize its resources to facilitate the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage, including dispatching buses to the border with Iraq to transport pilgrims and offering financial contributions. Exactly how much is spent in total to support the rituals each year is unclear. However, the Municipality of Tehran, the capital and largest city of the country, earmarked $1 million for the Arbaeen pilgrimage preparations this year. The governor of Ilam, a province that borders Iraq, where segments of the march originate, claimed in August that the province had spent $26.6 billion to shore up the “Arbaeen infrastructure.”
Indeed, Arbaeen is becoming a lucrative industry for many Iranian conglomerates, which received generous government subsidies to fund different activities before and after the march. The Razavi Keramat Institute, a subsidiary of the Astan Quds Razavi, the financial empire that runs the Imam Reza Shrine in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, distributed 3.5 million free warm meals to pilgrims this year, and the outlays came from the government sponsorship as well as the tax exemptions it is afforded.
In 2016, it was estimated by local media that the Iranian airlines operating Arbaeen flights generated a gross revenue of $7.3 million per day, and BBC Persian ascertained the yearly turnover of the Arbaeen preparations by the government totaled $26.6 million, including support for the religious institutions that are bankrolled by the government to organize rituals in Iraq.
Turnout was significant, especially buoyed by establishment loyalists and families of government officials, amounting to more than 3 million pilgrims who crossed the border into Iraq. However, the Raisi administration’s poor handling of the event was emblematic of its track record of ineptitude in dealing with a slew of challenges gripping the country.
Raisi, who had spent his entire career in the Judiciary gaining no administrative experience, demonstrated in his first year as president that his ability to address natural disasters, environmental conundrums, popular protests, social fault lines, economic sanctions, and foreign relations has been circumscribed by his administration’s doctrinaire approach to different issues.
In dealing with thousands of pilgrims rushing to the Iran-Iraq border to participate in the pilgrimage, the performance of the Raisi-led government was no different: bungling and inadequate. On several occasions, Ministry of Interior officials urged the pilgrims to refrain from going to the border due to limited transportation and hygiene provisions to cater to their needs. This lack of planning and groundwork only speaks to the limits of the logistical capacity of a government that sees problems in abstract terms, rather than as pragmatic issues that have real-life solutions.
To be sure, the ongoing protests in Iran that have been engulfing the country and stretching into a third week are the direct outcome of the Raisi administration’s mishandling of a social fault line with religious ramifications just like he failed the Arbaeen rites. Raisi has been upping the pressure on women and youth over the imperative of compulsory hijab compliance, multiplying the resources of the morality police, and giving the Initiative for Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice extra resources to usher in new restrictions on women’s dress and public representation. The president’s lack of restraint and prudence on this social and religious matter has degenerated into a full-fledged crisis pushing the establishment to the brink.
Iran’s ultraconservative Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Mehdi Esmaeili said that the Arbaeen pilgrimage is a phenomenon that is “bigger than the miracles of prophets and saints.” Beyond the bluster, the minister is indeed revealing the longer-term priority Iranian leaders attach to this pageantry of strength and defiance, as an instrument of influence that seeks to rival Saudi soft power projection in the Islamic world.
Yet, despite the entire spectrum of financial and material resources dedicated to make the Arbaeen pilgrimage a flamboyant display of Iran’s prowess and influence in the Muslim world, with the event marred by tragedy and blunder, the Raisi administration was unable to reap the intended short-term publicity benefits sought by the establishment or to challenge the luster with which Mecca and Medina have long burnished Saudi Arabia’s credentials as a leading force in the Islamic community.