Iran called Sunday for the overthrow of the government of Saudi Arabia in retaliation for the violence that left hundreds dead during the annual pilgrimage to Islam's holy shrines in Mecca.
The call by the Speaker of Iran's Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, represented a serious escalation of tensions in the Middle East, already high because of threats to Persian Gulf shipping.
Rafsanjani's call also represented a departure in Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia, which, although diplomatically correct, had been cool because of Saudi support for Iraq, Iran's enemy in nearly seven years of warfare.
Now, however, Iran's invective has assumed the tone of an Islamic crusade, with Rafsanjani denouncing Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis, the stern strain of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism that has been the dominant force in Saudi life for decades.
"We, as the soldiers of Allah and as those responsible for implementing God's orders, feel duty-bound to take revenge on both the United States and Saudi leaders," Rafsanjani said, according to the official Iranian news agency IRNA.
"We will avenge the martyrs by purging the holy shrines in Mecca of the wicked Wahhabis and by uprooting the Saudi leaders from the region," Rafsanjani was quoted as having said.
Saudi Arabia said that a total of 402 people were killed during the clashes in Mecca on Friday, including 275 Iranian pilgrims. Saudi authorities said that many of the victims were trampled in a stampede and that others died in rioting that followed a demonstration by the Iranians.
In part, the tensions between the Saudis and the Iranians date back centuries because the Saudis follow Sunni Islam and the Iranians are Shias, the essential difference being who is considered the rightful heir to the Prophet Mohammed, who spent much of his life in the vicinity of Mecca.
Thus, Iranian calls for the removal of the Saudis from the holy places are likely to produce a highly tense reaction in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, since one-third of Saudi Arabia's population is Shia Muslim, and the Saudi armed forces, although the strongest among the gulf Arab states, are smaller than those of more populous and powerful Iran, a non-Arab nation.
Iran's interior minister, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, sent a message to his Saudi counterpart accusing Saudi police of acting "on instructions from the United States," IRNA reported.
Tehran called on Muslims everywhere to "give an appropriate response by direct attacks on U.S. interests and their presence all over the world," according to the news agency.
Arab World Support
However, most of the Arab world has rallied to the support of Saudi rulers, according to wire service reports.
The official Saudi news agency reported that many leaders have called King Fahd to "express their condemnation of the sabotage actions of the Iranian pilgrims in Mecca."
It said they included the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Sudan, Bahrain and Kuwait. Predictably, the strongest condemnation came from Iraq, Iran's Persian Gulf War enemy.
The Saudis have vehemently denied Iranian allegations that police opened fire on the pilgrims, and Saudi television has broadcast film of Iranians burning police cars to support Saudi claims that Iranian demonstrators caused the violence.
The Saudi government sent home an Iranian delegation that had arrived to investigate the violence, calling the mission an affront to Saudi sovereignty and security.
Saudis' Unique Role
The Saudis view their unique role in the Islamic world with great seriousness, and King Fahd has even decreed that he be referred to in public as the "custodian of the Islamic holy places." The Kaaba shrine, lying within Mecca's Grand Mosque, is Islam's holiest place, and every Muslim is enjoined to make the pilgrimage there at least once in his life.
Rafsanjani, addressing a mass rally estimated by Tehran radio at 1 million people, said, "The huge wealth of the Muslim world lying under the Arabian Peninsula and the southern Persian Gulf should be taken from the criminal lackeys of colonialism and spent on the fight against the global arrogance and blasphemy."
United Press International quoted Western diplomatic sources in Tehran as calculating that only about 10,000 to 12,000 people were at the rally.
Iranian television showed women in black chadors and men marching in separate groups to the rally and chanting, "Death to America!" "Death to the Saudi rulers!" and "Revenge! Revenge!"
Kuwait announced the release Sunday of two diplomats detained when its embassy was stormed Saturday in Tehran, UPI reported, and Saudi Arabia continued to demand freedom for four staff members it said were in its Tehran embassy when the building was overrun by mobs.
In his speech, Rafsanjani said the issue now is the sanctity of the Islamic holy places where even the killing of a fly is forbidden.
Sanctity of Holy Places
He charged that the United States planned the violence in Mecca because of what he described as its recent failures in the Persian Gulf.
Rafsanjani specifically mentioned the U.S. Navy's escort of Kuwaiti ships through the gulf, which 10 days ago stumbled badly when a Kuwaiti supertanker, re-registered under the American flag as the Bridgeton, struck an underwater mine believed to have been planted by Iran.
Western analysts said the Iranians may have turned their attention toward the Saudis, now that the United States has declared its intention to safeguard shipping from Kuwait, which had been targeted by Iran because of Kuwait's support for Iraq in the gulf war.
The analysts noted that the Saudis have made available two minesweepers to help clear Kuwaiti coastal waters of Iranian mines.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are regarded by Iran as particularly hostile because the proceeds of oil production from an offshore oil field in the gulf go to Iraq to help its war effort.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that heavy security remained in force Sunday in and around Mecca.