On the offensive: Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may plan violence in Mecca during the sacred Hajj.
December 17, 2006 -- MILLIONS of Muslim pilgrims from all over the world begin trekking to Mecca for the annual Hajj ceremony next month - and officials in Saudi Arabia, where the "holy" city is located, are on tenterhooks. They fear that Iran's ultra-radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will turn the Hajj into a political demonstration in support of his agenda for a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and what he calls "The Zionist-Crusader camp" led by the United States.
"We know that a lot of agitation is going on," a senior Saudi official claims. "Iranians have been recruiting radicals to send to Mecca from all over the world, including the United States."
The Islamic Republic itself is expected to send 200,000 pilgrims, representing almost 10 percent of the total. Saudi officials claim that some 5 percent of the Iranian pilgrims have always been identified as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Corps and the Islamic Republic's various intelligence services. This year, however, the profiles of Iranian applicants for pilgrimage visas indicate that more than 20 percent may belong to the military or security services.
To these must be added professional street-fighters from the various branches of the pan-Islamic Hezbollah movement, which Iran created in the 1980s as a way to "export" Khomeinism to other Muslim countries. The movement's best-known branch, the Lebanese Hezbollah, has announced it will sending over 3,000 pilgrims this year - all paid for by Iran.
With so many men with military and security backgrounds in Mecca, the mullahs leading the Iranian pilgrims would be in a position to seize control of the space around the black stone of the Ka'aba (The Cube) and use it as a venue for political demonstrations.
IF that is, indeed, the Iranian intention, it would not be the first time that the Khomeinist mullahs have used the Hajj to promote their ideology. Through much of the 1980s, the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini managed to disrupt the pilgrimage by sending his shock troops to the "holy" city with a mission to indoctrinate pilgrims from all over the world.
Khomeini claimed that the main reason for the pilgrimage was to demonstrate the Muslim nations' "exoneration from the Infidels" (bara'a lil-mushrekin). In 1986, he claimed that the slogan "Death to America!" was as important to Muslims today as the more traditional one of Allah Akbar
For several years, the Saudi authorities managed to control the Khomeinist shock troops and prevent total disruption. In 1987, however, things ran out of control. A group of Khomeinist militants went on the rampage, provoking a police reaction. The ensuing street battles killed more than 400 pilgrims and injured nearly a thousand.
THE tragic incident led to a boycott of the Hajj by the Islamic Republic that continued until after Khomeini's death in 1989. In the 1990s, the Iranian pilgrims returned and steered clear of trouble thanks to a pledge given to Saudi Arabia by Hashemi Rafsanjani, then president of the Islamic Republic.
But Ahmadinejad's supporters denounce Rafsanjani's decision to end Hajj demonstrations as another example of the former president's "betrayal of the revolutionary values."
"It is clear that Ahmadinejad is keen to demonstrate broader Muslim support for his promise to drive the Americans out of the Middle East and destroy Israel," says Manuchehr Badi'i, a Tehran political analyst. "Anecdotal evidence shows that Ahmadinejad, while facing mounting opposition at home, is popular in Islamic radical circles elsewhere. He may want to use that popularity as a weapon against domestic critics."
On Friday, a leading cleric with close ties with Ahmadinejad fired what sounded like the first shots in the coming clash with Saudi Arabia over the Hajj. Addressing the Friday prayer congregation in Tehran, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami warned the Saudi authorities against any attempt at preventing the Iranian pilgrims from "venting their anger at the Crusaders and the Zionists."
KHATAMI also criticized a fatwa issued by 38 leading Saudi clerics last week, calling on Sunni Muslims to take up arms and travel to Iraq to fight the Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad. "I wonder how these people can call themselves religious scholars," Khatami said. "If they are not traitors we must assume that they are naive."
Khatami dismissed suggestions that the Middle East is entering a period of sectarian wars between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. He claimed that the real issue was the choice between revolutionary Islam, represented by Iran, and "an Islam of defeat and compromise" represented by all other governments in the Muslim world.
Some critics of the Islamic Republic share that analysis. "What we witness in the region is a political fight," says Muhammad Jassim al-Saqar, Deputy Speaker of he Kuwaiti National Assembly (parliament). "For more than two decades, Iran has tried to set the agenda for the whole region in the name of its ideology."
ALTHOUGH presented in religious terms, Ahmadinejad's ambition to restore Iran's position as the dominant regional power has deep roots in Persian nationalism.
Ever since it emerged as a state over 25 centuries ago, Iran has always tried to extend its western frontiers and reach the Mediterranean. Iran's westward expansion, however, stopped in 610 AD when the Byzantine Empire succeeded in driving the last Persian forces out of their footholds along the eastern Mediterranean. In the 15 centuries that followed, successive empires - Roman, Arab, Mameluke, Mongol, Ottoman and British - frustrated Iran's attempts at regaining what historian Sepehr Zabih has called "Persia's western lung."
With the shattering of the balance of power in the Middle East, partly thanks to U.S. intervention that destroyed Iran's enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, regaining that "lung" is no longer regarded as a fantasy in Tehran.
Iran is already present in Iraq and hopes to dominate the county once the United States has abandoned it. Iranian influence is also expanding in Syria, where Iran maintains a major security presence while thousands of Syrians are converting to the Khomeinist brand of Shiism.
With Syria already a client state, Iran is also trying to seize control of Lebanon through its Hezbollah proxies, who have declared war on Premier Fouad Siniora's democratic government. According to U.N. reports, Iran has been pouring money and arms into Lebanon while increasing the number of its security personnel in Beirut fourfold over the past weeks.
ENCOURAGED by the defeat of President Bush's Republicans in America's mid-term elections, Ahmadinejad has clearly moved onto the offensive.
Speaking to voters at a polling station in Tehran on Friday, Ahmadinejad claimed that the United States was already defeated in the Middle East. "They are like rubble, and we are like the flood," he said.
"That kind of talk can only lead to war," says Sami Faraj, an expert in regional security. "Ahmadinejad feels that, with the United States wavering in Iraq, nothing can stop him. The region may have to pay a high price to prove him wrong."
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.