Over the past 18 months or so, the expansion of mainly Shi'a Iran's influence in Iraq and Lebanon, combined with the aggressive rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative administration, has unsettled political and religious leaders in many Sunni Arab states, in particular in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
A fatwa, or religious decree, issued by a group of leading Saudi clerics in mid-December reflected the concern among Sunnis about the growing assertiveness of Shi'a Islam. The fatwa denounced Shi'as, and called on Sunni Muslims to go to Iraq and take up arms against the Shi'a-dominated government there. "What has been taken by force can only be regained by force," the Saudi clerics asserted in the fatwa.
A separate religious decree - issued by one of the 38 Saudi clerics behind the mid-December fatwa - denounced Shi'as as infidels. "The rejectionists [Shi'ias] in their entirety are the worst of the Islamic nation's sects," the Saudi cleric, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman al-Barrak, said in the second fatwa, which was posted on various Islamist web sites in late December.
Politically, many Sunni Arab states now appear inclined to use all means at their disposal to thwart what they perceive to be Iran's ambitions to achieve dominance in the Muslim world. Among Sunni-dominated states, Syria is perhaps Iran's only friend. Iranian officials sense that, in the current climate, many Sunni Arab states might align with Iran's arch-foes, the United States and Israel. In addition, various Sunni groups, both civilian and militant, could join such an anti-Iranian coalition, either formally or informally.
One such group, the Islamic State of Iraq - a Sunni militant group in Iraq with reported ties to the al Qaida terrorist organization - issued a pre-recorded appeal in mid-December calling for an all-out Sunni offensive in Iraq against Shi'as. "Slit [Shi'a] throats, spill their blood, burn the ground underneath them and rain bombs on them," the appeal said. "God is victorious, but the crusaders [the US-led military coalition], Shi'as and renegades are unaware of that."
To reduce the chances of a broad anti-Iranian coalition taking shape, Tehran has made a variety of goodwill gestures aimed at improving Iran's image among Sunnis. For instance, Iranian leaders have allocated funds for the construction of Sunni mosques and curtailed anti-Sunni propaganda.
On 14 January, Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei threw his support behind the new course. Ostensibly responding to the Bush administration's toughened stance toward Iran, he characterized those urging Shi'a-Sunni strife as "neither Shi'a nor Sunni." He further said there was a need for greater unity in the Islamic world to discourage some Muslim countries from embracing the United States and Britain.
Within days of Ayatollah Khamenei's comments, the Iranian press and Friday Prayer leaders picked up on the theme of Shi'a-Sunni unity in radically new fashion. For example, Baztab, an influential conservative-dominated website, published an unprecedented article 25 January, cataloguing the wrongs that Sunnis have suffered in Iraq.
Later, Iran's Press Oversight Committee announced that the hardliner-dominated paper Siasat-e Rooz, published by former commanders of the Revolutionary Guards, had been closed indefinitely for publishing an article that mocked Islam's second caliph, Omar ibn Khattab, who has been traditionally reviled by Shi'as.
In another startling sign of the new openness of Iranian Shi'a leaders toward Sunnis, Rasa, a website belonging to the Qum seminary news service, published a story denying that the tomb of Omar's assassin, Abu Lulu, was located in Iran, and had been transformed into a shrine. Shi'as view Abu Lulu as a heroic figure in the history of Islam.
The Rasa denial, published in mid-December, came in response to a story posted by the Al Arabia website, which had reported