Vol. 11, No. 2 June 2, 2011
- Bahrain is the locus of a titanic struggle between regional powers representing polar extremes of Islam (Shiite Iran vs. Sunni Saudi Arabia), and international powers’ economic and geo-strategic interests.
- Washington has been regarded as Bahrain’s main ally. The command of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, operating in the Persian Gulf as a counterweight to Iran, is located in Bahrain. Yet Washington finds it difficult to formulate a consistent policy toward the protest there.
- Bahrain is now at one of the most sensitive points in its history: it is truly in the Iranian lion’s maw, still hosts the main naval base of the American fleet in the Gulf region, and is a microcosm of the current struggle between the old and the new in the Middle East.
- Iran has claimed sovereignty over Bahrain, maintaining that Bahrain formerly constituted Iran’s fourteenth province. Iran is acting vigorously in Bahrain to overthrow the regime through planting clandestine cells and organizing the Shiite population for protests, and is being aided by Lebanese Hizbullah.
- The battle in Bahrain has not yet concluded. Iran seeks to use the kingdom as a springboard for continued influence and, given U.S. and Western indecisiveness, Saudi Arabia finds itself almost alone in confronting Iran.
The Special Case of Bahrain
The ongoing crisis in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority (70 percent) is challenging the Sunni royal family, has gradually come to reflect major processes of change that will reshape the political, politico-religious, and social reality in the Middle East. These processes will also redefine the relationship between the region and the United States in particular and the West in general, as well as the tension-laden relationship between Sunnis and Shiites.
At first glance, Bahrain may appear merely another arena where the popular protest sweeping the Arab world has spilled over. A closer look will reveal, however, that Bahrain constitutes a unique case, one that is likely to appreciably influence the change processes in the Middle East. It signifies, perhaps similar to Iraq, “the sum of all fears” and mirrors the weaknesses of the Arab and Western worlds in the face of the Iranian buildup and power projection.
At the same time, the Bahraini case highlights the internal disputes within the Shiites themselves regarding links with Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah. A majority of Shiites remain conflicted over the source of religious authority (Khamenei of Iran or Sistani of Iraq), while ethnic and religious rivalries – Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shiite – continue. Bahrain is the locus of a titanic struggle between regional powers representing polar extremes of Islam (Shiite Iran vs. Sunni Saudi Arabia), and international powers (struggling to keep up with the dramatic changes sweeping the region).
The process of stabilizing Iraq, with its difficult but encouraging experience with democracy since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has also paved the way (more than the social networks) for the current wave of protests in the Arab world, which is (adversely) influenced by events in Bahrain. The reactions in Iraq still clearly reflect the ethnic-religious fault line: the Shiites support the protest of their Bahraini brothers, while the Sunnis back the external (Saudi) involvement and the continued rule of the Sunni royal family.
An additional major factor in the Bahraini imbroglio is the United States. Washington finds it difficult to formulate a consistent policy toward the protest there, given Bahrain’s centrality in terms of future measures against Iran. Washington has been regarded, at least up to the present, as the kingdom’s main ally. The command of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, operating in the Persian Gulf as a counterweight and deterrent to an Iran that maintains a prominent presence in those waters, is located in Bahrain, and indeed the United States has recently beefed up its presence in the kingdom. At the same time, the Iranian propaganda machine is taking advantage of the undecided and hesitant American policy toward the Bahrain Shiite protests
A Major Conflict Arena
Bahrain is, then, gradually becoming a major irritant and conflict arena in the Persian Gulf between the two regional powers. (Shiite) Iran views itself as the representative of what it defines as the new order, soon to be constructed on the ruins of the American/Western old order and the Arab regimes supported by it. Iran skillfully exploits the weaknesses and divisions among the Arab states and their primary preoccupation with preserving their own stability and discerning the U.S. position toward them, while seeking to strengthen its own involvement. On the other side, (Sunni) Saudi Arabia is fighting a desperate rearguard battle to salvage something of the old order that is collapsing at its feet. This accounts for Iran’s major efforts within the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and other inter-Islamic forums to showcase the Bahraini protesters and the obliviousness of the Western and Sunni world to their entreaties and plight.
The entry of the Saudi forces as part of the Peninsula Shield Force, in the framework of the defense agreements between the Gulf states and Bahrain, has advanced the Saudi front line with Iran, added new content to the historic rivalry between the two countries, and sparked a high-intensity renewal of the propaganda war and tension between the two aspirants for leadership of the Muslim world. With Bahrain bordering Saudi Arabia, should the former fall to the Shiites – an outcome that Iran is working for more than ever – it will give Tehran direct access to the very heart of the Sunni world. That is precisely why the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sent the Peninsula Shield Force to help Bahrain protect “vital installations and interests,” and also proposed at its last meeting to admit the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco to the Council and broaden the front against Iran
Choose Your Religious Authority
The entry of Saudi forces (other GCC states also contributed soldiers) played into the hands of Iran and the Bahraini opposition, which contended that the Kingdom of Bahrain is de facto a Saudi satellite. The gradual transition of the Bahraini opposition from the quiet protest (which did not lead to tangible reforms) characteristic of its approach for years to a violent struggle, stimulated by Iran and assisted by Lebanese Hizbullah, reinforced the Shiite elements in Bahrain that support the Iranian Shiite model – that is, the rule of the religious jurisprudence (Velayat-e-faqih), currently Ayatollah Khamenei. Conversely, this transition weakens the Shiite elements that support the quietist Shiite model, which is manifested at present in Iraqi governance and whose principal representative is Grand Ayatollah Sistani; even some of the Shiite elements in Lebanon (such as Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah before his death) support this model.
Iran, for its part, is worried about the large-scale support that Sistani is gradually accumulating among the Shiites in Bahrain and among other Shiite concentrations in the Gulf (and in Lebanon, and even in Iran itself). Thus Iran is trying to bolster those Shiite elements that view the Iranian leader as a source of religious emulation and to foster among the Bahraini Shiites (some of whom are of Arab and some of Persian origin) a unique Shiite identity that is oriented to the Iranian leader. Tehran provides generous financial support to the Bahraini Shiites, assists their organizations, and, with the help of Hizbullah, even supplies some of them with weaponry.
Over the past few months the tensions accompanying Iranian-Bahraini relations, which have existed since the kingdom’s establishment in the 1970s, have increased. The background is the spread of protest against tyrannical regimes throughout the Arab world and Iran’s exploiting the protest to push its ambitious agenda of strengthening the region’s Shiite elements in particular and promoting its influence in the awakened Middle East in general. Tehran will host (June 3) an International Conference on Islamic Awakening and regional developments.
Bahrain, the Fourteenth Province of Iran
Iran has claimed sovereignty over Bahrain and found historical documentation to support this. Bahrain was under Persian rule from 1602 to 1783. After Britain, at the close of the 1960s decided to withdraw its forces from the Persian Gulf, Iran renewed its demands for sovereignty over the island. In a 1970 plebiscite, however, the residents of Bahrain, called upon to choose between independence and annexation to Iran, opted for the former, and in August 1971 they attained it. The Shah of Iran did not raise the issue, but it arose once again after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Tehran periodically puts it on the agenda along with its demands for sovereignty over the three disputed islands (Abu Moussa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb) at the opening of the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Senior Iranian officials continue to maintain that before its independence Bahrain constituted the fourteenth province of Iran and even was represented in the Majlis. They also scathingly criticize the Shah’s “shameful” decision to forgo Bahrain. For example, the editor in chief of the influential Iranian newspaper Kayhan, who is a close associate of Khamenei, wrote in July 2007 that “the governments of the Gulf States were established as a result of the direct intervention of the global arrogance [i.e., the Western powers]…and they are accused by their peoples of collaboration with the Zionist entity….They know full well that the earthquake that Iran has created [i.e., the Islamic Revolution] will [sooner or later] lead to the collapse of their illegal regimes.” He stated that this was not just his personal opinion but also that of the peoples of Iran and Bahrain.1 Such assertions disputing Bahrain’s Arab character, independence, and sovereignty, though rare, feed Bahraini and Arab suspicions regarding continued Iranian subversion and repeated attempts to overthrow the Royal House.
Iran does not limit itself to words and is acting vigorously in the territory of Bahrain primarily via the Shiite population and Lebanese Hizbullah advisers (a model it is also adopting in other regions, such as Iraq). It seeks to promote its interests and lay the groundwork for overthrowing the regime in Bahrain through planting clandestine information-gathering cells, organizing the Shiite population for protests, and engaging in subversive activity. Many telegrams revealed by WikiLeaks supported the suspicion that the Bahraini Royal House (and other Gulf states including Saudi Arabia) expressed to senior American parties about the diplomatic (“Bahrain is part of Iran”) and military (nuclear and maritime) threats posed by Iran, along with its subversion in Bahrain, growing influence in the region (primarily in Iraq and in the Gulf waters), and the need to formulate a regional response – both Arab as well as an international defense umbrella – against these threats. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was one of the Arab leaders who enlisted in support of Bahrain following the Iranian threats.
Bahrain: Lebanese Hizbullah Is a Terrorist Organization Operating in Bahraini Territory
Recently senior Bahraini officials have revealed in interviews to the Arab media the role that Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah are playing in subversive activity on Bahraini territory. This is not the first time that accusation has been made, but its timing is important given the continued clashes in Bahrain and the overt and ongoing support for them by Iran and Hizbullah.
The Bahraini foreign minister, in an interview to the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, accused Hizbullah of training Bahraini citizens in Lebanon and other places and emphasized that his country was capable of “proving its claims.” He defined Hizbullah as a “terrorist organization” and called its leader Hassan Nasrallah’s claim that he would intervene in Bahrain “terror and intervention in the internal affairs of Bahrain.” The foreign minister also accused the Iranian foreign-language propaganda organs – the (Arabic) Al-Alam satellite TV station and the (English) Press TV – of “spreading lies,” and called on Iran to desist from its attacks on Bahrain.2 These networks indeed present daily propaganda supporting the Shiite protests in Bahrain and condemning Bahrain’s rulers and the Saudi involvement in the kingdom.
In another interview the Bahrain interior minister said Iran was seeking to overthrow the Bahraini regime, as it had already tried to do at the start of the 1980s when it was behind a failed coup attempt and again in 1994 when it established Hizbullah cells in Bahrain and also trained its fighters in Syria.3 In his view the protesters’ modus operandi and the support that they obtained for it from Tehran indicated that most of the Shiite protesters in Bahrain were connected to Hizbullah.4
The Second Deputy Chairman of Bahrain’s parliament, Sheikh Adel al Ma’awda, said that “Iran’s expansionist ambitions have been revealed to the world and that this is a policy that has been universally rejected by everybody…while if Iran is aiming to bring justice, it should start with itself, and lift its injustice against its own Shiite population, as well as the Sunnis, and it should be more concerned with fixing its own situation.”5
Regarding the tension that brought Bahrain to cancel flights to Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq, the Kuwaiti paper As-Seyassah wrote that the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were working on a joint decision to expel from their territory all Lebanese Shiites who maintained contacts with Hizbullah. The paper also wrote that the GCC states had obtained convincing evidence from intelligence bodies in Bahrain, France, and the United States that Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were working hand in glove with local religious (Shiite) elements who were leading the protests in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia (which is rich in oil and has a large Shiite minority). The paper quoted a high-level Bahraini who said that “No Lebanese Shia with connections – or suspected of connections – to Hizbullah or the Revolutionary Guard will remain in the Gulf. They must understand this from now on.”6 Note that when Nasrallah announced his willingness to assist the Shiite protest in Bahrain, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri hastened to contact the King of Bahrain and condemn Nasrallah’s words.
An Ongoing Effort
The Iranian attempts to undermine the Bahraini Royal House, referred to recently by senior Bahraini officials, are not new. In the past as well, Bahrain accused Iran of subversion in its territory, and in 1996 it even uncovered Hizbullah cells there that were implanted with Lebanese Hizbullah’s encouragement and assistance, going by the name of Hizbullah-Bahrain – the Military Arm. Earlier, in 1981, the security authorities uncovered the “Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain,” which worked under Iranian tutelage to promote a revolution in the country. The Iranian modus operandi is similar in every state where a Shiite majority or minority exists: it recruits Lebanese Hizbullah, which possesses the know-how and experience it has accumulated in wars with Israel as well as the advanced training it has received in Iran, to identify, recruit, and train local elements that can in the future constitute Hizbullah cells in their countries. In this manner Hizbullah-Hijaz, Hizbullah-Iraq, Hizbullah-Bahrain, and other groups were established. This formed the background for Morocco’s severance of ties with Iran.
In Bahrain, Iran has found a convenient infrastructure for political-religious subversion. First, the proximity to Iran makes it easier to assist the Bahraini Shiites. Second, the Shiite population has in recent years grown more receptive to Iran, given its disappointment over the reform process instituted by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, which was intended to weaken the Shiite opposition by including it in a fairly toothless parliament; the Shiite successes in Iraq have also inspired the Bahraini Shiites. Third, regional and international developments have helped whet Shiite appetites: the democratic elections in Iraq whose results reflected the Shiite majority, and the strengthening of Lebanese Hizbullah since the Second Lebanon War with its substantial political consolidation in Lebanon (including the removal of Hariri and the appointment of a prime minister who is a Hizbullah lackey). Fourth, Iran is currently riding the protest wave in the Arab world, trying to make it a catalyst for change in Bahrain, a change it has been promoting behind the scenes for many years, given Bahrain’s importance in terms of opening the gates to Saudi Arabia’s backyard.
Hence the scope, depth, and characteristics of the Iranian meddling in Bahrain differ from Iranian subversive involvement in other Gulf and Arab states, although there too an escalation has recently occurred that reflects Iran’s growing self-confidence. Bahrain is now at one of the most sensitive points in its history: it is truly in the Iranian lion’s maw, still hosts the main naval base of the American fleet in the Gulf region, and is a sort of microcosm of the current struggle between the old and the new in the Middle East.
Shiite Social Networks
The Shiite social media networks in Bahrain (and their links with Shiite social networks in other Shiite concentrations) play an important role in spreading the protest, stoking it, and coordinating it with Shiite bodies outside of Bahrain. Bahraini bloggers (some of whom have been arrested by the authorities), opposition forums and Internet sites were also active during the previous rounds of both quiet and violent antiregime protest during 2007 and 2008. A unique aspect of the Bahraini virtual domain is its attachment to the broader Shiite context and connections. In the virtual Internet realm the Bahraini Shiites find an attentive ear, words of encouragement and practical advice, common denominators, and they derive ideas in the Shiite context that go far beyond the Bahraini playing field. Thus the Shiite protest in Bahrain sometimes finds expression in the forums of Lebanese Hizbullah. Pictures and clips uploaded in Bahrain resonate in Hizbullah forums, in forums and blogs in Iraq, and the reverse. Thus, with Iranian inspiration, a sort of Shiite virtual brotherhood has emerged that ultimately overflows from the virtual dimension to the actual one.
Iran Sees an Opportunity
Given the special importance that Iran accords Bahrain, senior Iranian spokespersons including Khamenei view developments there as an important, almost divine, event – a continuation of the successes in the region over the past few years: the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, the Gaza War. The Iranian leader has already stated on several occasions that “in the Arab and Islamic domain, a fundamental development is occurring that attests to the vigilance of the Islamic Umma [nation]…a new movement has begun in the region. This is a movement of the Islamic nation, a movement with Islamic slogans heading toward Islamic goals and illustrating the general awakening of the peoples, and God willing, this movement will certainly achieve victory.”
Seemingly, Khamenei says, developments in Bahrain resemble those in the other countries; “their main desire is to hold elections but, in reality, the people have no…voting rights….They are suffering from oppression.” He accuses the West of hypocrisy in its policy toward the Bahraini protests, arguing that the West does not rush to support the insurgents there because they are Shiites, while employing the propagandistic claim that this is a Sunni-Shiite struggle. Khamenei asserts that the Bahraini struggle is similar to that in other Arab countries and hence worthy of support. He adds that Iran supports Bahrain precisely as it has supported the Palestinians’ struggles for thirty-two years. “We do not make any distinction between Gaza, Palestine, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen. Tyranny against nations is doomed everywhere.”8 In actuality, as noted, Iran views Bahrain as the weak link and an opportunity to tilt the balance in its favor in the regional struggle it is waging against Saudi Arabia, the representative of the old order, and its ally the United States.
“The Revolution Sweeping the Islamic Countries Will Also Cross the American Border”
The issue of the demonstrations against the royal family in Bahrain occupies a major place in the Iranian media, receiving extensive coverage in the written press and in its editorials. Likewise, the political portions of Friday sermons in Tehran deal at length with the Shiite protest in Bahrain and the agitation in the Arab world (this being primarily criticism of Libya, which Iran continues to hold responsible for the disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr in its territory).
Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Guardian Council and one of the major Friday preachers, asserted that the Bahraini regime has oppressed the Shiites for years and called upon the Bahraini Shiites, in the spirit of the Iranian struggles of martyrdom and the heritage of Karbala (involving the death of Hussein the Third Imam in the Battle of Karbala of 680, which became a tenet of Shiite belief and a paragon of self-sacrifice), to oppose the enemy. He stated: “You should either get martyred or win. This should be your slogan.” Jannati emphasized that the hand of the United States is apparent in all the “crimes” perpetrated in Bahrain and called upon all members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to assist the Bahraini people. He added that “with Allah’s help, the revolution sweeping the Islamic countries will also cross the American border….We expect this to occur….America is in a process of decline (politically and economically) whether it cares to admit it or not.”9
The dispatch of a GCC intervention force to help Bahrain overcome the protests, of course, is widely condemned by Iran’s religious and political elites and remains on the country’s agenda. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denounced the Saudi military involvement and accused the United States: “this military invasion was a foul and doomed enterprise….The U.S. seeks to save the Zionist regime [Israel] and suppress popular uprisings. So it supports certain governments.”10 Grand Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi denounced Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for sending forces to defend what he defined as “the Sunni rulers’ crackdown in Bahrain against the Shiite demonstrators” and stated: “It is out of the ordinary that a seemingly Islamic state should send armed forces to slaughter people of another state.”11
The English-language government media outlets in Iran, intended for propaganda purposes, emphasized the “protest wave in the Arab world against the dispatch of a Saudi assistance force to repress the Shiite protest,”12 as well as “the training that the Bahraini security forces receive from corrupt and ‘bloodthirsty’ British military security bodies.”13
In a comprehensive interview to the FARS news agency, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards claimed that the double standard “imperialism” was displaying in Iran “accurately reflects and also exposes the mendacity of the imperialist world.” He underlined that the common denominator of all the revolutions against the “corrupt regional rulers” was these rulers’ loyalty to the United States and Israel, that the Bahraini ruler had awarded the United States direct access to the Persian Gulf via a naval base in an Islamic region, and that “the inhabitants of Bahrain cannot tolerate this language.” The Revolutionary Guard commander called the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain a “strategic mistake” that would hasten its demise, and said that soon “the hand of divine intervention will facilitate a response to the crimes of Saudi Arabia.”14 The commander of the ground forces, Ali A’rasteh, spoke similarly and noted that the U.S.-assisted Saudi presence in Bahrain was intended to check the influence of the Islamic regional awakening.15 Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani, a close associate of Ahmadinejad, said an Islamic Middle East was taking shape and the efforts of the United States to create a region with Israel as its focus had failed.16 The United States had also nurtured the Royal Houses in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE so as to maintain its regional dominance, but today “these puppet regimes” were being undermined and Saudi Arabia was destined to be undermined as well.17
The Iranian press strongly echoes the regime leaders’ statements on the issue and refers to the events in Bahrain as a turning point. Among other things it is claimed that, after the disturbances and the clashes between the Royal House and the Shiite demonstrators, the situation in Bahrain will in any case never return to its former state; and that the residents of Bahrain can no longer protest the iniquities they suffer quietly, since now “the stage of their armed resistance to the dictatorship in their country” has arrived and they are left with no other option. The situation is analogized to Hizbullah’s struggle: “If Hizbullah in Lebanon could vanquish Israel and its well-equipped army, then Hizbullah-Bahrain can without a shadow of a doubt dispose of the Bahraini army and the Saudi expeditionary force, since today it is much easier to provide weapons to the Bahraini protesters than it is for the Bahraini Royal House to hire Saudi mercenaries.”18 Extremist elements in Iran such as Ansar Hizbullah have discussed methods for conducting a jihad against what they term “the slaughter of Bahraini Shiites by the Wahhabi Saudis.”
The Iranian Evil
On the other hand, and quite unsurprisingly, the international, Saudi-controlled, pan-Arab press fires right back and hurries to defend Gulf solidarity and the expeditionary force to Bahrain. It levels the habitual criticism that Iran is pushing the Bahraini Shiites into extreme positions and demands, hindering a reasonable solution to the crisis despite the long way that the Bahraini Royal House has gone toward the Shiites in recent years:
The Iranian government announced that it opposes the deployment of Saudi forces in Bahrain and demanded that they be withdrawn. However, Iran’s approval or objection means nothing, because the GCC countries are all members in the Peninsula Shield, which is aimed at protecting member states from foreign interference and threats, while the Bahraini government has accused Iran of meddling in its affairs and incitement.19
The allegedly hypocritical position of Nasrallah, Iran’s protégé, and his statement that he is prepared to assist the Shiites in Bahrain, have also drawn scathing criticism in the pan-Arab press:
Why didn’t we hear any support from Hassan Nasrallah, a man who shows such contempt for double standards, for the first indications of a popular revolution in Syria?…What is the noble Hassan Nasrallah’s view of the despotism and tyranny of the Iranian government, not only against the oppressed Sunni minority, who are deprived of the most basic religious and political rights, but also against the reformists, the majority of whom were disciples of the Khomeini revolution who have now dispensed with their robes?…Hassan Nasrallah was not wise when he said there was no difference between the Gaddafi family and the al-Khalifa family, as there is a massive difference between the two. Now he must answer us regarding the difference between the families of Gaddafi, al-Assad, and Ahmadinejad.20
The Saudi press defended the decision to send forces to assist Bahrain, emphasizing the continued Iranian subversion in the region, its many years of meddling in Bahrain, and its “evil” regime. The newspaper Al-Jazeera asserted that “Iran’s embassy in Bahrain, like other Iranian embassies in the Arab Gulf states and Iraq, is an espionage den with stockpiles of weapons and intelligence and IRGC cadres who direct, control and lead sleeper cells of saboteurs.”21
The clash between the Arab-Sunni and Persian-Shiite camps surrounding the crisis in Bahrain also included an exchange of verbal brickbats between senior Iranian clergy and the prominent Sunni preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The Iranian clergy accuse him of making discriminatory statements about the protests in Bahrain when he called for their suppression. Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem-Shirazi inquired: “How can an open-minded religious scholar make such remarks? The meaning of the statement by Mr. Qaradawi is that we discriminate between Muslims Qaradawi supports who are protesting in Egypt, and war in Libya, but when it comes to Bahrain he defends dictatorship.”22
Ultimately, the continuing crisis in Bahrain is not confined to the Shiite majority’s demands for change and their proper and full integration in Bahraini political and economic affairs. It also reflects developments in Bahrain’s strategic environment: the “Shiite renaissance” in the Arab-Islamic domain, primarily in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon; the strengthening of Iran and of Hizbullah, its “performance contractor,” in that domain; the changes occurring in the nature and intensity of American influence with, as an outcome, the weakening of the moderate Arab camp and particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt (which, since Mubarak’s fall, has again been signaling Tehran about its desire for improved relations); and, above all, the ever-deepening Sunni-Shiite fault line in the region.
The Shiites, who have lived with a sense of discrimination since the dawn of Islam, now draw inspiration from this and aspire, under Iran’s leadership, to occupy a historic place of honor and lead the Islamic world in a sort of new world order.
The battle in Bahrain has not yet concluded. Many hands are stirring the pot there. Iran is trying to bring about a transformation, and will use the kingdom as a springboard for continued influence over the Sunni world. Saudi Arabia is attempting to repair and preserve the existing situation, and finds itself almost alone in a confrontation with an Iran that is proceeding toward nuclearization and playing in its own backyard. Iran has, indeed, been showing satisfaction over the nuclear issue’s relegation to the margins of the global agenda.
The United States, for its part, continues to display indecisiveness in Bahrain and is hampered by constraints related to its deterrent policy toward Iran. In the absence of any creative solution, Washington may again be counting on the quietist Shiites of the Sistani school to calm the atmosphere in Bahrain as well. Despite hardly being mentioned lately, Iran’s nuclear program continues to progress, and pressure on Iran could lead it into tougher actions against Bahrain.
What is happening in Bahrain, then, could be the “perfect storm” from Iran’s standpoint, one that could eventually tilt the balance in its favor. The pendulum is moving, albeit slowly, in Iran’s direction; Washington continues to lose leverage while Iran keeps gaining assets (in Iraq and Lebanon). Nevertheless, the fall of the Syrian regime could constitute a problem for Iran and move the pendulum to the other side, given the possible effects on Hizbullah and on the assistance to Shiite actors in Iraq, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. This would be a good time for Washington and the West to re-think how to help the opposition in Syria.
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1. Kayhan, July 14, 2007.
3. Al-Arabiya, March 30, 2011.
8. IRINN, March 2, 2011.
9. Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Radio), March 18, 2011.
18. Asr Iran, March 19, 2011.
21. Al-Jazeera, March 21, 2011.
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Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall is an expert on strategic issues, with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East.