Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad issued a veiled threat to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, warning against harming Iranians during the upcoming Muslim pilgrimage.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country would make "appropriate decisions" if Iranians were not treated fittingly during the upcoming annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, known as the Hajj. The comments mark heightened tensions between the two Gulf countries.
"The Hajj season is an extraordinary opportunity to defend Islamic values and Muslims," Ahmadinejad was quoted saying in official Iranian media. "Iranian pilgrims, especially, will thwart any enemy conspiracies and increase the unity of Muslims."
Dr. N Janardhan, a political analyst based in the United Arab Emirates told The Media Line that he thought the comments were "more political and ideological than otherwise."
Dr. Janardhan said Ahmadinejad's statements echoed the general feeling in Iran that Shi'ites are not treated well in Saudi Arabia, especially given the animosity between the two Gulf countries.
"Saudi Arabia is the regional hegemony and it doesn't want Iran to become the military hegemony in the region," he said. "It's trying to limit Iran from getting regional hegemonic status."
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states are unhappy about the prospect of Iran becoming a regional nuclear power and fear that Iran's real intention is to build up a nuclear arsenal.
Tehran insists the program is purely for peaceful energy purposes but is concerned Riyadh will use its clout in the international arena to halt the program.
Iran has a strong influence over Shia communities and movements in other countries such as Lebanon, Yemen and Morocco. Janardhan added that while Iran's influence is often referred to as the Shia crescent, "it is now being called the Shia encirclement."
The annual Hajj is a momentous event in the Muslim calendar, attracting some two million visitors to Saudi Arabia every year. The four-day pilgrimage brings together Muslim worshippers from all corners of the globe in an event that every able Muslim must carry out at least once in his or her lifetime. This year the Hajj is taking place in the last week of November.
Observers are concerned that Ahmadinejad's comments will fuel demonstrations during the Hajj, similar to those staged by Iranians in 1987 over tensions between Shi'ites and Sunnis. Clashes with Saudi police during the 1987 riots lead to a stampede in which more than 400 people were killed.
Iranian pilgrims complained earlier this year that they were discriminated against by Saudi authorities while on the Umrah, the smaller pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of Iranian worshipers were not issued Saudi visas in May, and Iranian women complained they were being singled out for fingerprinting at Jeddah International Airport.
Iranians said at the time this treatment was usually reserved for criminals and terrorists.
Ahmadinejad said Iranians performing the Hajj should take health precautions in order to avoid contracting diseases, especially Swine Flu.
Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamrnri urged Saudi authorities to do everything in their power to stop hostilities against Shi'ites at Saudi holy sites, warning this harmed Muslim unity and served the objectives of the United States and foreign intelligence agencies.
Tensions between Iran, which is mostly Shia, and Saudi Arabia, which is mostly Sunni, is already running high because of the conflict in northern Yemen, which is seen by many as a Sunni-Shia strife.
Saudi Arabia also has a Shia minority of its own, many of whom complain of systematic discrimination by the government.
Some Saudis are pressing the government to take stronger action against Tehran, including the use of force, in order to stop Iranian intervention in Yemen, for fear that Saudi Arabia's security is being adversely affected.
A recent opinion piece in this vein was published in a Saudi newspaper, which could have contributed to the Iranian president's tone on Tuesday.
The Iranian Arabic language satellite station Al-Alam has meanwhile been hosting Saudi opposition groups. Tehran accuses Saudi Arabia of waging a media war against it and of exploiting the recent unrest in the aftermath of Iran's elections to support Iranian reformists.
Analysts have also noted a negative tone in Iranian state media towards Saudi Arabia since Ahmadinejad was reelected earlier this year.
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