Bahrain, Hezbollah and the Sunni-Shia arc of conflict

Jerusalem Post, 9/11/12.

Bahrain this week accused the Lebanese Hezbollah group of responsibility for a series of bombings in the Bahraini capital Manama. The five bomb blasts, in the Adliya and Gudaybiya districts of the city came amid renewed protests by members of the island’s 70% Shia majority against the Sunni Khalifa monarchy. Two Asian cleaning workers were killed.

Information Minister Samira Ibrahim bin Rajab issued the accusation against Hezbollah. She said that the terrorists were operating according to principles set by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and further accused the Iranian media of inciting against the monarchy. The minister did not offer any concrete evidence to back up her accusation of Hezbollah involvement.

Official Bahraini claims of Iranian interference in the internal affairs of the island are nothing new. The ruling al-Khalifa family has long sought to locate the protests against it in the context of the cold war between anti-western Iran on the one hand and the Sunni Gulf monarchies (pragmatically aligned with the west) on the other.

As an ally of the west, and the host of the US 5th fleet, the Bahraini monarchy is keen to depict its internal struggles as a local manifestation of a broader conflict.

Critics of the monarchy argue that this is a comfortable ‘narrative’ for the rulers of Bahrain to promote. It enables them to downplay or ignore very real claims of discrimination and exclusion levelled by the Shia majority.

This tendency manifests itself in concrete ways. In September, for example, a Bahraini civilian court upheld very harsh sentences against leaders of last year’s uprising. A prosecution official said that “some of the accused had relations, and
strived to have relations and intelligence contacts, with a foreign organization, Hezbollah, which works in the interests of Iran.”

But while the instrumental value for the monarchy of accusing Iran is obvious, this does not of itself render the accusations groundless. No concrete evidence has yet been offered to back up claims of Hezbollah or IRGC military support for the Bahraini opposition. Indeed, the Bahraini revolt against the monarchy has been largely non-violent in nature.

But there is considerable evidence to suggest that Teheran is offering financial and political assistance to the opposition in the island.

The regime of the mullahs has long claimed ownership of Bahrain, which it refers to as Iran’s ‘14th province.’ The assertion of this claim has not been confined to mere declarations. Teheran directly assisted a failed pro-Iranian coup attempt by the so-called ‘Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain’ in 1981.

A recent report produced by the American Enterprise Institute traced the financial support of a number of Iranian clerical offices, including that of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, for the Bahraini opposition.

An investigation by a London newspaper into the ‘Bahrain Freedom Movement’, based in the British capital, found that the movement’s leader, Dr Saeed Shehabi, worked out of offices directly owned by the ‘government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.’

Hassan Mshaima, who was among the opposition leaders jailed for life in May, went as far as proposing Iranian military intervention in support of the uprising last year. Mshaima, leader of the powerful Shia Islamist Haq movement, made these remarks in an interview with the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper.

Senior Iranian officials, up to and including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have been vociferous in their overt support for the Bahraini uprising. The Iranian state media has also kept up a steady drum-beat of condemnation of the Bahraini authorities. The criticism grew angrier following the Saudi and GCC military intervention in support of the Bahraini monarchy in March 2011.

From a western point of view, there is an obvious cynicism at the heart of Iranian support for the Bahraini protestors. Iran crushed similar protests at home in 2009. Tehran is deeply involved in the brutal Assad dictatorship’s struggle for survival in Syria.

But of course the Iranian cynicism is directly mirrored by the Saudi approach, which supports revolt in Syria, and suppression of protests in Bahrain. In each, support for representative government and the right to protest is not a factor. The motivation is sectarian and concerned with power.

Where the Sunnis are in power – in Bahrain, for example – the Saudis back the Sunnis. Where the Sunnis are in rebellion, as in Syria, Riyadh is with the rebels. The Iranians use the same logic – supporting the rebels in Bahrain, and the ruling authorities in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

A Sunni-Shia arc of conflict, centered on the rival interests of Teheran and Riyadh is now bisecting the Middle East. This arc stretches from Lebanon, via Syria and Iraq, taking in Bahrain, Kuwait and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, and extending to north Yemen.

In each of these areas, Sunni and Shia Arabs are competing for power. In each area, the Iranians back the Shia interest, the Saudis and to a lesser extent the smaller Gulf monarchies back the Sunnis.

For both sides sectarian identity is the defining factor.

Saudi and Gulf concerns arise from their accurate identification of Iran’s regional ambitions and its methods for building power and influence.

The Iranians lack powerful conventional armed forces. The tools they utilize are those of creation and/or sponsorship of proxies, political subversion, sectarian propaganda and, where relevant, the use of paramilitary methods.

The Saudis, with a less successful track record in political warfare, are trying to counter the Iranian push using similar methods.

Whoever was directly responsible for the explosions in Bahrain this week, it can be said with certainty that the bombings and their aftermath were another episode in this ongoing, region-wide contest.

This contest, in turn, is notable for the absence of an external guiding hand on either side. Both sides estimate that the US has chosen to unilaterally withdraw from regional leadership. The Iranians are happy about this. The Saudis are dismayed.

Neither side is democratic. Sectarian loyalties mark the borderline. The roots of the enmity go down into past centuries.

The Sunni-Shia arc of conflict looks set to form the key strategic process in the period now taking shape in the Middle East.

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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