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The Mecca Confrontation

May 01, 1988

Saudi Arabia has followed its break in diplomatic relations with Iran with a blunt warning that further provocations from Tehran could invite attack from the Saudis' new Chinese-made missiles. These are bold steps from a country long known for its cautious conduct of foreign relations, not least as regards its revolutionary neighbor across the Persian Gulf. King Fahd and his advisers clearly believe that such boldness has become obligatory if a repetition of last summer's rioting by Iranian pilgrims in the holy city of Mecca is to be prevented.

Certainly Iran has done nothing to reassure or conciliate the Saudis. After last July's rioting Tehran called on Muslims everywhere to help overthrow the Saudi royal family and put an end to its custodianship of the Islamic shrines in Mecca, birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, and Medina, the site of his tomb. This year Tehran announced it would again insist on sending 150,000 Iranians to Mecca and again demanded that they be free to demonstrate against the United States and Israel. The Saudis said they would permit perhaps no more than 45,000 pilgrims from Iran. Iran showed its displeasure by attacks on Saudi shipping in the gulf and acts of sabotage against Saudi property elsewhere. The break in relations followed.

This confrontation began building well before last year's events in Mecca. The Saudis from the beginning have been major financiers of Iraq in the war it launched in 1980 against Iran, partly out of a sense of Arab solidarity against the ancient Persian enemy, even more because they have special reason to fear Iranian revolutionary expansionism. Saudi Arabia's eastern oil provinces are home to a considerable minority of Shia Muslims who have long been particular targets of propaganda and subversion from their co-religionists in Iran. The Saudis moreover are regarded by Tehran's ayatollahs as too religiously impure to serve as the guardians of Islam's most revered shrines.

Iran's preoccupation with its war against Iraq and its confrontations at sea with the U.S. Navy aren't likely to keep it from mounting some dramatic response to the Saudi action. Sabotage, terrorism, incitement to sedition are among the courses it may choose. Certainly the Saudis knew that what they have done wouldn't be risk-free. Their willingness to challenge Iran anyway is an indication either of a new self-confidence or, maybe, of their desperation.

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