Iran and Saudi Arabia duel over Bahrain

The Saudi-sponsored newspaper Alsharq Alawsat this week reported a meeting in Qom between Iraqi Shi’ite Islamist leader Moqtada al-Sadr and leaders of the Bahraini opposition. Alsharq Alawsat, based in London, was keen to cast a spotlight on this meeting because it appears to offer evidence of the involvement of Iran and its allies in the uprising against the rule of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in Bahrain.

Riyadh and its allies have long alleged that the unrest in Bahrain is the work of a hidden Iranian hand. Their contention is that Iran is artificially fomenting the protests in order to replace the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy with an Iranian-style Islamic republic.

But the Qom meeting notwithstanding, the real picture is rather more complex and ambiguous.

The response to events in Bahrain reflects the reality of a sectarian power contest between Saudi Arabia and Tehran in the Gulf area and beyond.

This contest has little or nothing to do with democracy, popular rule, Arab Springs or any of the other hopeful themes of 2011. It is a battle between a non-democratic Shi’ite Islamic republic and a non-democratic Sunni monarchy. This battle is taking place in an area of vital strategic interest to the world.

But events within Bahrain itself are not simply the reflection of the machinations of Saudi or Iranian puppet-masters. They derive from the genuine discontent of a majority Shi’ite population, ruled over by an oppressive, super-wealthy Sunni monarchy and a rich Sunni elite.

The tiny archipelago of Bahrain is situated in the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Some 67 percent of global proven crude oil reserves are in the Gulf, while 30% of daily crude oil exports from the Gulf pass through Bahraini coastal waters.

The US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which ensures the security of the area, has been based in Bahrain since 1995.

Iran’s reasons for wishing to exert influence and achieve dominance in Bahrain are not difficult to fathom. The key goal of the Islamic Republic is to replace the US as the guarantor of Gulf energy resources. As part of this, Tehran is determined to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia, fearful of Iranian ambitions, is equally determined to prevent this.

Iran has a long history of claiming ownership over Bahrain and seeking to profit from internal political unrest there. As early as 1957, the Iranian parliament declared Bahrain to be the “14th province” of Iran. In 2009, Nateq Nuri, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, restated this long-held claim.

The Islamic Republic also has a lengthy history of active attempts at subversion in Bahrain. In 1981, Tehran launched a coup via a proxy Shi’ite Islamist group, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. The coup was intended to establish a Shi’ite theocracy under the leadership of an Iran-based cleric, Hojat-al Islam al-Mudarissi. It failed. The attempt led to a tightening of joint security arrangements between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It was also a factor in bringing about the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Iranian support for Shi’ite opposition in Bahrain has continued in subsequent decades.

Yet the current protests are not a production made purely in Tehran. An independent inquiry established by King Hamad to locate the cause of the uprising failed to find any proof of Iranian material support.

The popular al-Wifaq opposition movement that led the protests is Shi’ite Islamist but has little sympathy for Tehran and cannot realistically be presented as a tool of the mullahs. Demonstrators, initially at least, demanded a transition to constitutional monarchy, though this rapidly extended to calls for an end to the monarchy.

From the point of view of Bahrain’s Saudi neighbors, there was no room for ambiguity. The Saudis, in any case, are both anti-democracy and anti-Shi’ite. On March 14, 2011, a Saudi-led intervention entered the country at King Hamad’s request and crushed the protests, using live ammunition.

The reason for the Saudi intervention was succinctly expressed by an unnamed Saudi official to The Washington Post: “We don’t want Iran 14 miles off our coast.”

The Bahraini authorities continue to maintain that Iran is engaging in subversion and helping the protests. In November, the authorities arrested five men under suspicion of plotting to blow up the King Fahd Bridge – the only bridge connecting Bahrain with Saudi Arabia. The Manama authorities now say that these men are connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and received military training in Syria.

Protests have broken out again, against the background of the Formula 1 Grand Prix, which was recently held in Bahrain. The authorities are continuing their heavy-handed approach to suppressing them.

Whatever the truth of the claim regarding the King Fahd Bridge plot, it is a fact that many or most of the participants in the protests are not consciously following an Iranian line.

But at the same time, it is also a fact that the sectarian logic expressed by the Saudis (and the Iranians) reflects a reality likely to trump the hopes for reform and greater freedoms sincerely held by many of the Bahraini protesters. As in Egypt, the genuine nature and groundedness of the protesters’ demands should not be allowed to obscure the fact that sectarian political Islam represents the strongest force in the region and any mass political campaign in the Arab world today will almost inevitably take on its colors.

The demonstrators want the downfall of the monarchy. The leading elements in the protest are Shi’ite Islamist. If they come to power, they will almost certainly align with Iran. By doing so, they will establish the long sought-after Iranian foothold on the Arabian peninsula.

The Saudi-Iran cold war in the Gulf is a sectarian contest in which one side, that of the Saudis, is ambiguously and problematically aligned with the West, while the other is openly anti-Western. The Saudi and GCC interest is thus, problematically and for now, the Western interest. The US administration appears to understand this, mainly because it has no desire to involve itself further in any part of the Middle East. It is therefore happy to allow Riyadh to coordinate the Sunni response. The increasingly stark Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry in the Gulf and beyond, meanwhile, may well be the key strategic dynamic in the region.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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