From a strategic point of view, the Iran-led regional axis has until now emerged
as a net earner from the “Arab Spring” of 2011. In Egypt and Tunisia, two
stable, pro-Western Arab regimes have fallen, giving way to ambiguous and
potentially chaotic situations in those countries.
Among the countries of
the “resistance axis,” meanwhile, protests have been brutally suppressed or
stillborn, at least for the moment.
Attention is now turning to the vital
Persian Gulf area. Bahrain is in the midst of an uprising by the country’s
majority Shi’ite population. But the main question is whether instability will
spread to Saudi Arabia – the key US ally in the area, and in many ways the
linchpin of US regional strategy.
Here, Tehran stands to play a more
active role than that of lucky bystander. The Gulf area is the central focus of
Iranian ambition. It wishes to fulfill a long-standing strategic ambition of
emerging as the dominant power in this area. The breakdown of order in Saudi
Arabia would offer it a major opportunity to advance this cause.
lacks conventional military ability and real economic power. It is adept,
however, at turning political chaos into gain. The regime has developed tools
and practices for political warfare which have so far delivered it domination of
Lebanon, a competing franchise in Palestinian nationalism and key influence in
If the Gulf regimes fail to effectively navigate the current
unrest, Iran is fair set to begin to apply these practices in this area. The
potential implications are enormous. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf
states are aware of the risk, and are energetically trying to keep these areas
closed to Iranian political-military subversion.
Bahrain is the test
case. Here, the Iranians are best placed to make gains. The population of this
tiny kingdom is 70 percent Shi’ite. The ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family has
failed to address the socioeconomic needs and demands of this section of the
population. The kingdom is currently roiled by a Shi’ite uprising. A formerly
London-based cleric with Iranian connections, Hassan Mushaima, recently returned
to take part.
Bahrain is small but vital. It is the base of the US Fifth
Fleet, which ensures the security of the Gulf states in the face of a
conventional military threat. Still, the real game is in Saudi
Iranian potential depends largely on the volume of the Shi’ite
population in a given country. In Saudi Arabia, Shi’ites constitute only 10%-15%
of the population, around 2 million people. Scope for subversion there is
limited, but potent.
They are found largely in the areas of al- Hasa and
Qatif, in the oil-rich eastern province of the kingdom. Saudi Shi’ites are
distrusted by the monarchy, and have long been subject to a repressive,
restrictive regime and to economic marginalization.
The Wahhabi rulers of
the kingdom despise Shi’ism, which they regard as heretical.
before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is facing an inevitable
succession crisis. King Abdullah is 88 years old. Despite the vast oil wealth of
the kingdom, there are significant social problems among Saudi citizens, both
Shi’ite and Sunni. These include high youth unemployment and a shortage of
available housing. So the potential for crisis, and for external exploitation of
it, is considerable.
The solution the kingdom has traditionally found is
a combination of repression and throwing money at problems. The recent
announcement of $37 billion in benefits for Saudis, combined with the
pronouncements of senior clerics forbidding participation in demonstrations,
suggests that a similar approach will be tried to hold off the current regional
Will it work? The current indication, as oppositionists plan a
“day of rage,” is that it may well, in the sense that the monarchy is unlikely
to fall any time soon. The implications of such an eventually would be of such
seismic proportions – above all to the global oil industry – that it may be
assumed that the Western backers of the Saudis, if need be, will countenance all
measures necessary to prevent this – unless a truly disastrous naivete prevails
in the West, of course.
Whether or not the upcoming day of rage proves a
damp squib, the Shi’ites of Saudi Arabia cannot by themselves pose a threat to
the monarchy. They are too minor a section of the population. And the main focus
of anger is likely to be this community. But this does not render them without
use from Iran’s point of view.
It may be assumed that the Kuds Force of
the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is well-entrenched among the Shi’ites of
Saudi Arabia. If they can cause disruption in the oil-rich eastern province,
they will attain a major new card in building their status as the key power
broker in the Gulf. And if Saudi Arabia suffers from disruption beyond the
boundaries of the Shi’ite community, Iran will also benefit from the simple zero
sum equation that its enemy’s loss is its gain.
Thus, as the initial
euphoria of the Arab uprisings begins to fade, the familiar contours of the
regional standoff begin to return to visibility and assert their
Rival forces are attempting to make use of the sudden eruption
of popular unrest for their own preexisting purposes. The game for Iran is
promoting internal dissent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The objective for the
West must include promoting the same against the brutally repressive Iranian
regime. The Iranians have so far proved adept at suppressing their own
protesters. The Al-Sauds are now determined to prove no less able practitioners
of the art of staying alive and in power.