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Unrest in Bahrain: An Opportunity for Iran?

By Sulome Anderson

The Bahraini government has responded brutally to recent protests led by the country’s Shiite majority. The crackdown, which was carried out with Saudi Arabia’s help, may create an opening for Iran to exert wider influence in Bahrain. The Iranian government has allowed public displays of support in Tehran for the protest movement in Bahrain, a country that has long been a bone of contention between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

In Tehran, non-Iranian religious students protested against the crackdown outside the Saudi embassy and United Nations headquarters on April 8, in what was seen as an attempt to convince the Iranian government to more fully support the protesters in Bahrain. On April 7, the Iranian state-run Fars News Agency published an open letter from Bahraini Shiites calling for assistance from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Jean-Francois Seznec, professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, warns that the involvement of the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a member, and the crackdown itself may have provided Iran with an opening it previously did not have. “The Bahraini Shiites view themselves as Bahraini, not Iranian,” said Seznec. “But now that they’re being oppressed to this extent, they will turn to the only protector who will support them, which is Iran, and Iran will be very happy to take up the cause.”

The island nation of Bahrain is small but strategically important, especially to the United States and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which oversees the flow of oil from the Gulf, is based there. Because of its proximity to Saudi Arabia, which, like Bahrain, has a large and often discontent Shiite population, any unrest in Bahrain is worriesome for the Sunni al Saud monarchy.

The violent crackdown on mostly Shiite protesters began on March 14. The Bahraini al-Khalifa monarchy announced a state of martial law while Gulf Cooperation Council troops and Bahraini security forces cleared the streets around Pearl Square where the protests were centered, even tearing down the pearl that had come to symbolize the Bahraini protest movement.

The Bahraini government has not released any information regarding casualties, but reports indicate that at least 13 people were killed.

Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, says that the Saudis intervened out of fear that Iran had a hand in driving the Shiite-led protests. “They believed that the protests could lead to a Hezbollah type of situation, and one that would occur very close to Saudi Arabia,” he said.

But area specialists say there is little evidence to confirm allegations of Iranian involvement in the protests themselves, which were fueled by the Bahraini government’s expulsion of all Iranians from Bahrain and veiled references by King al-Khalifa to a “foreign plot.”

“Protestors in Bahrain have only voiced their desire for basic human rights and a better government,” said Toby Jones, assistant professor of history at Rutgers University and a recognized expert on Bahrain. “These allegations are fear-mongering on the part of governments who have a vested interest in not reforming.”

Accusations that Bahraini Shiites are loyal to Iran are not new, according to Jones. “Since the late 70’s, accusing the Shiites in Bahrain as being connected to Iran has been at the heart of Bahraini politics,” he said. “There’s a deep sense of mistrust that has been cynically manipulated by those in power.”

The brutality, however, has led to questions about the U.S. response and comparisons to the situation in Libya. Last month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told ABC’s “This Week” that, unlike in Libya, the United States wasn’t taking military action against Bahrain’s government for its brutal crackdown on protesters because Bahrain has always been a key U.S. ally. “I think we have to be very careful to treat every country differently," said Adm. Mullen. "Bahrain is in a much different situation than Libya.”

Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, says that the United States’ stance on the protests in Bahrain is indefensible. “I think it’s very difficult for them to defend their position,” he said. “They’ve made statements about ‘deploring violence,’ but they’ve taken a very different line than in Egypt or Libya.”

The lack of United States involvement may have actually strengthened Iran’s position, says Jones. “Iran’s influence in Bahrain has been fairly limited until recently,” he said. “But given the brutal nature of the crackdown and American support for the monarchy, which seems to be unwavering, some protesters will have no choice but to turn to Iran for guidance or even perhaps something more serious.”

Thus far, Iran has been unwilling to officially involve itself in Bahrain’s conflict, and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been making an effort to keep peace with Saudi Arabia. However, Iran’s clerics have been pushing for a more aggressive show of solidarity with Bahrain’s Shiites, and the letter from Bahraini Shiites as well as the demonstrations are seen as attempts to incite the Iranian government to act, at least unofficially.

“I don’t think that Iran will make it official government policy to destabilize Bahrain, but they will probably look for ways to influence events,” said Jones.

However, Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and author of an upcoming book on the Obama administration’s Iran policy, says that Bahraini Shiites won’t be reaching out for Iran’s help anytime soon.

“For obvious reasons, the Shiites in Bahrain want to keep their distance from Iran, because they would be playing into the government’s claim that this is a sectarian uprising,” said Parsi.

Parsi says the demonstrations in Iran and the blazing rhetoric employed by Iranian leaders probably won’t amount to much in the way of action.

“There’s a long history of Iran staging protests and demonstrations, and it’s really just for show,” said Parsi. “The Iranian strategy is to bark loudly, but rarely to bite.” 

Sulome Anderson is a graduate student at Columbia University School of Journalism.

Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera English. 

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