It's a big week for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For the first time in his life, the Iranian president joined millions of other Muslims in Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Images of a serious and unusually well-groomed Iranian president consulting the Koran in Iran before boarding his plane to Saudi Arabia have appeared in the world media. Yet this is not merely a story about a pilgrimage.
Ahmadinejad is the leader of the Shiite Islamic Republic, a country that has jolted the entire Middle East and frightened its Sunni neighbors in recent years with its push for Shiite political and religious superiority. That push is being accompanied by patient work on a nuclear program and ingenious deception and time-delay tactics to keep Western critics at bay.
Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Sunni bloc, is one of Iran's frightened neighbors. And yet, it was Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah who made the surprising friendly gesture, inviting Ahmadinejad to Mecca for the Hajj.
Even from a purely Sunni religious standpoint, the invitation of a Shiite leader to the Hajj is big news. Shiites are viewed by many Sunni clerics as infidels. It's easy to find evidence of that hatred, especially when one looks at the religious decrees originating in Saudi Arabia. One fatwa by Saudi sheikh Abdel-Rahman al-Barrak ruled last year that Shiites "in their entirety are the worst of the Islamic nation's sects. They bear all the characteristics of infidels. They are in truth polytheist infidels, though they hide this."
Shiites have long been rejected by Sunnis as fellow Muslims. The split dates back to the origins of Islam, when two camps were battling for the right to succeed Muhammad. In the end, the group that went on to become the Sunnis massacred Hussein, the martyr of the Shiites, along with his army, during a massive battle in Karbala (modern day Iraq).
Shiites will never forget that day, enshrined into their collective memory and relived annually through the festival of Ashura. But the Shiites haven't given up trying to take back what they view as their right for the throne of the Islamic world. Armed with a sword and a smile, Iran has been making offers that its cowered Sunni neighbors can't refuse.
"We propose the establishment of economical and security pacts and institutions among the seven states," Ahmadinejad told a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at the beginning of the month. Iran wants a regional set-up free from "foreign influence," Ahmadinejad said. Like the Hajj pilgrimage, Iran's presence at this event marks big changes. It is yet another signal of Iran's disturbing ascent. The invitations are nods from the Sunni states in recognition of Iran's menacing presence and growing power.
The fact that Iran was invited to the GCC conference right after the US National Intelligence Estimate ruled that the Islamic Republic halted work on nuclear weapons in 2003 is no coincidence. The NIE is seen as a sign of an American retreat. The report is a cannon ball that has blown an irreparable hole in the ship sailing towards significantly tighter UN sanctions on Iran. As that ship sinks, the one behind it, carrying the US military option vis-à-vis Iran, has made a U-turn, in the eyes of Gulf states. Ahmadinejad has become a Gulf celebrity, invited to conferences and pilgrimages other Iranian leaders could only dream of attending; The Gulf states are scared.
As far as Iran's regime is concerned, this is just the beginning of things to come. Not long ago, a close associate of Iran's supreme leader, who edits the state-approved Iranian newspaper, Kahyan, said neighboring Bahrain is a actually a province of Iran. The comment triggered alarm and was later followed by a reassurance from the Iranian foreign minister, who said that Iran and Bahrain "respect each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity." Sometimes, Iranian officials speak too soon.
In the final act of the Hajj, the masses of Muslim pilgrims circle the black stone in Mecca, known as the Kaaba, seven times. Iran's leader circled with them, representing the Shiite state's glaring presence.