Vol. 7, No. 11 July 20, 2007
- Recent Iranian implied threats to “liberate” some of the Gulf states, and an Iranian editorial calling Bahrain a district of Iran, have caused great consternation in the Gulf states. In Bahrain there have been demonstrations at the Iranian embassy, and an official protest was submitted to Tehran. An additional Iranian article by the same author again disparaged the Gulf states and made further territorial threats.
- Iran has territorial ambitions in the Persian Gulf and does not hide them. In its view, every region of the Gulf is essentially Persian and not Arab; moreover, a large Shiite population lives in the Gulf.
- The tireless Iranian endeavor to build a large, powerful military and develop a civilian and military nuclear capability is a central part of a strategy aimed at transforming Iran from a regional power to a global one that can contend with the United States and the West. The closer Iran gets to nuclearization, the bolder it is likely to be toward the West and its neighbors.
- Iran’s prophetic vision is already being translated into practice in the propagation of the Shiite faith in many Muslim countries including Pakistan, India (Kashmir), Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, and others. Senior Sunni theorists keep warning of the Shiite “missionary” campaign that is spreading in the Arab world.
- The Sunni world has tended to support Iran in its confrontation with the United States over the issue of nuclear development. Now that the situation is getting critical, there is a basis for strategic cooperation between the United States and the Sunni world aimed at stopping Iran.
- In the eyes of the Arab states, the threat to wipe the Sunni world from the map is graver than the Iranian promise to annihilate Israel. Paradoxically, Israel and the Arab world are in the same boat, with similar interests; moreover, it is in fact Israel that can save the day for the Arabs.
Iran Eyes “Illegal Regimes” in the Gulf States
Tension is increasing between Iran and the Gulf oil principalities over Iranian territorial claims that imply a threat to “liberate” some of these states and annex them to Iran, the “mother homeland.” The crisis was triggered by an editorial by Hussein Shriatmadari, adviser to Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khameini and editor in chief of the newspaper Kayhan, who asserted that “Bahrain is one of the districts of Iran.” On July 9, 2007, Shriatmadari wrote:
At present, and in line with the documents that prove Iran’s complete and unequivocal sovereignty over the three islands [Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa], we must again ask the question: is the motive for their claim [regarding UAE sovereignty over the three islands as indicated in resolutions of the Gulf Cooperation Council] not their fear of the earthquake that the Islamic Revolution has stirred up against their governments, [whose foundations] are in previous centuries and are illegal? All these governments [of the Gulf states] were established as a result of direct intervention of the arrogant forces [imperialism], and the peoples were not involved in appointing their governments, formulating their policies, or decision-making. Indeed, all the governments that are members of this council [the Gulf Cooperation Council] are accused by their peoples of cooperation with the Zionist entity….
The earthquake stemming from the example set by the Islamic Republic [of Iran] will lead to the collapse of their illegal regimes. They well know this and have started to express hostility to Islamic Iran as a strategic objective. This path is dangerous not only for Iran but also for the continuation of their governments.1
Consternation in Bahrain
The article caused great consternation in Bahrain. Demonstrations were held at the Iranian embassy and an official protest was submitted to Tehran. A member of the Bahraini parliament, Muhammad Khaled of the Muslim Brotherhood, stated in a newspaper interview that Iran needs to officially apologize for Shriatmadari’s article, and if it does not do so, Bahrain should recall its ambassador from Tehran and cut off diplomatic relations. He expressed fear that Iran is already preparing to foment a domestic uprising in Bahrain, whose Shiite residents account for 70 percent of the total population. “Bahrain has always taken a positive position on the Iranian nuclear crisis and has announced more than once its opposition to a military attack on Iran, and this is the ‘nice’ response to Bahrain’s position,” said Khaled.2
Following Bahrain’s protest, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki met with his Bahraini counterpart, and the two issued a joint statement affirming that “Bahrain and Iran respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Someone in the Iranian Foreign Ministry clarified that Iran had not submitted an apology since the Kayhan editorial did not express an official position but rather only the view of its writer.3
Senior Iranian sources told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that the article was a reaction to an announcement by the foreign and defense ministers of the Gulf states at a meeting in Jeddah at the beginning of July which expressed support for the UAE’s claim to sovereignty over the three islands captured by Iran. The Gulf Cooperation Council, which unites the oil principalities, stated in its resolutions:
As for Iran’s continued occupation of the three islands, Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa, which belong to the UAE, the council reemphasizes its established positions:
- Support for the right of the UAE to restore the three islands to its sovereignty, with the territorial waters and the airspace…which are an inseparable part of the UAE.
- Expression of regret that no progress has been achieved in the direct and regional and international contacts being held with Iran.
- Calling on the Islamic Republic of Iran to respond to the efforts of the UAE and the international community to solve the problem by direct negotiations between the sides or by submitting the problem to the International Court of Justice.4
Iranian Pressure Continues
The Iranian explanations did not placate the fears of the oil principalities, particularly in light of the ongoing attack on them and the accusations that these regimes are illegitimate and, furthermore, cooperate with the United States that is seeking to attack Iran. Shriatmadari was not deterred by the criticism against him and in a further article in Kayhan on July 15, 2007, under the headline “What’s Going On with You People?” he again disparaged the Gulf states, refraining from calling Bahrain “the state of Bahrain” and instead calling it “the island of Bahrain.” In this article Shriatmadari also asserted that several decades ago Bahrain was one of the districts of Iran, but was severed from it because of an agreement between Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the governments of the United States and Britain. He attacked the rulers of the Gulf states who deny “the total Iranian sovereignty over parts of the recognized Iranian lands” and accused them of becoming spokesmen for the United States and its allies who are working to open a new front against Iran in the context of the key struggle between Tehran and Washington.5
Ali Ahmadi, a member of the Iranian parliament and of the Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy, also attacked the position of the Gulf states regarding sovereignty over the three islands. “If these states want to raise the ghost of these issues, it will harm them more,” said Ahmadi, who noted that during certain periods some of the Arab countries, including Bahrain, were part of Iran.6
The Rajah News website, identified with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stated that the Shiites in Bahrain constitute 70 percent of the original residents and many of them speak Farsi. They watch Iranian television and are fans of Iranian soccer teams. The website noted that Iranian leaders have warned the Gulf states that continued support for the UAE’s claim to sovereignty over the three islands will resurrect Iran’s claim to sovereignty over Bahrain, despite the Shah’s concession of Bahrain in 1971.7
A former senior Iranian figure said in an interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that Shriatmadari’s article reflects the view of Ali Khameini, who takes an aggressive line on foreign policy as reflected in a recent speech in which he berated former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami for conducting a foreign policy during their tenure that was defensive rather than offensive. However, he criticized Shriatmadari, saying his words unnecessarily complicate Iran’s relations with the Gulf states.8
Iran has territorial ambitions in the Persian Gulf and does not hide them. In its view, every region of the Gulf is essentially Persian and not Arab; moreover, a large Shiite population lives in the Gulf states. The tireless Iranian endeavor to build a large, powerful military and develop a civilian and military nuclear capability is a central part of a strategy aimed at transforming Iran from a regional power to a global one that can contend with the United States and the West. The closer Iran gets to nuclearization, the bolder it is likely to be toward the West and its neighbors.
Iran is careful not to repeat the error of Saddam Hussein, who invaded Kuwait in August 1990 before completing the program he was working on to develop unconventional weaponry. Iran’s overriding interest at present is to deter the United States (and Israel) from carrying out a military attack that would damage its nuclear program, and to deter the Gulf states from militarily assisting the United States.
Ahmadinejad’s Prophetic Vision
In the next stage, the nuclear umbrella is meant to serve as the basis for a more activist foreign policy that will carry the banner of the Islamic revolution. The religious vision that motivates Iran is a platform for political and military activity, and this vision centers on the goal of reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate, which will then create the conditions for the appearance of the Mahdi, the Muslim messiah. Ahmadinejad announced this explicitly in a speech to senior religious figures (November 2006),9 and in an epistle to Christians (December 19, 2006) in which he stated that “the era of distress, suffering, and threats will come to an end on the Day of Days and Jesus will return to the world with the appearance of the descendant of the Holy Prophet of Islam, the Imam Mahdi [the Shiite messiah], and he will remove any signs of oppression, suffering, and travail from the world.”10
In the Shiite communities, Ahmadinejad is seen as the embodiment of the Muslim leader who can advance the redemption. In the book Ahmadinejad and the Coming World Revolution, Shadi Fakia makes a direct link between Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi and says the present president of Iran fits the description of the commander of the Mahdi’s forces who will liberate Jerusalem according to the Shiite faith. Ahmadinejad is described as a resolute individual who is directly guided by Allah and believes the “Jerusalem liberation army” will pass through Iraq, similarly to the belief of Khomeini, who said that “the way to Jerusalem leads through Karbala.” Ahmadinejad’s determination to develop nuclear weapons is also interpreted as one of the signs of the messianic redemption, since for him and his close associates, confronting the international pressures to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear technology is one of the ways to prepare the stage for the Mahdi’s appearance.11
Sunni Reactions to Shiite Missionizers
The prophetic vision is already being translated into practice in the propagation of the Shiite faith in many Muslim countries including Pakistan, India (Kashmir), Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, and others. Senior Sunni theorists keep warning of the Shiite “missionary” campaign that is spreading in the Arab world. A few months ago the Supreme Muslim Council in Syria called on all Sunni Muslims to rise up against the campaign of religious conversion that Iran is conducting with the help of the Syrian regime. Its goal, the Supreme Muslim Council claimed, is to push the Sunnis to emigrate from their countries while abandoning their identity and religion and, indeed, destroy them. The propagation of Shiism, the council claimed, is also seen in the establishment of schools in every city, the construction of Shiite mosques in Sunni neighborhoods, and imposition of limitations on Sunnis in practicing their faith.12
Especially harsh in his attack on the Shiites was the Mufti of Mount Lebanon, Sheikh al-Juzu. In an interview with the Egyptian weekly Ruz al-Yusuf (December 22, 2006), al-Juzu said that “Iran aspires to take over the Arab region. It is seeking to take control of the oil in the [Persian] Gulf and to make the whole Arab region Shiite. There are complete villages that have become Shiite….What is now happening is a Persian Iranian Shiite invasion that Khomeini was not able to achieve, but which today is being carried out by Hassan Nasrallah, Muktada Sadr, Alaziz Alhakim, and Muhammad Ali Taskhiri.”13
The manifestations of an aggressive Iranian foreign policy are multiplying and are well reflected in the profound fears of the Gulf states. The commanders of the Iranian army have threatened more than once to attack the Gulf states and the oil facilities if they assist the United States in attacking Iran. Now, in addition to these threats, comes a declaration indicating Iran’s intention to take over the Gulf region and its huge oil reserves, which will serve as a source of immense economic power and a tool to devastate the Western economy.
The Sunni world has tended to support Iran in its confrontation with the United States over the issue of nuclear development. Now that the situation is getting critical, there is a basis for strategic cooperation between the United States and the Sunni world aimed at stopping Iran. In the eyes of the Arab states, the threat to wipe the Sunni world from the map is graver than the Iranian promise to annihilate Israel. Paradoxically, Israel and the Arab world are in the same boat, with similar interests; moreover, it is in fact Israel that can save the day for the Arabs.
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1 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 13, 2007, http://www.asharqalawsat.com/details.asp?section=3&article=427952&issue=10454.
2 Al-Khalij (UAE), July 14, 2007, http://www.alkhaleej.ae/articles/show_article.cfm?val=405611.
3 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 15, 2007, http://www.asharqalawsat.com/details.asp?section=3&article=428190&issue=10456.
4 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 13, 2007, http://www.asharqalawsat.com/details.asp?section=3&article=427952&issue=10454.
5 Al-Qabas (Kuwait), July 16, 2007, http://www.alqabas.com.kw/Final/NewspaperWebsite/NewspaperPublic/ArticlePage.aspx?ArticleID=296043.
6 Al-Qabas (Kuwait), July 14, 2007, http://www.alqabas.com.kw/Final/NewspaperWebsite/NewspaperPublic/ArticlePage.aspx?ArticleID=295412.
8 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 13, 2007, http://www.asharqalawsat.com/details.asp?section=3&article=427952&issue=10454.
9 Al-Hayat (London), November 19, 2006.
10 IRNA, December 19, 2006.
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Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd. and is a former advisor to the Policy Planning Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.