Behind The Lines: The Sunni-Shi’a arc of conflict
The rival interests of Riyadh and Tehran stand at the center of the sectarian division.
A SHI’A anti-government protester throws a Molotov Photo: REUTERS
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 percent Shi’a majority against the Sunni Khalifa
monarchy. Two Asian cleaning workers were killed.
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’s involvement.
Official Bahraini claims of
Iranian interference in the internal affairs of the island are nothing
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 and the
Sunni Gulf monarchies, which are pragmatically aligned with the West.
an ally of the West, and the host of the US Fifth Fleet, the Bahraini monarchy
is keen to depict its internal struggles as a local manifestation of a broader
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 Shi’a 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
But while the instrumental value for the monarchy’s 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 the
Revolutionary Guard’s military support for the Bahraini opposition. Indeed, the
Bahraini revolt against the monarchy has been largely non-violent in
But there is considerable evidence to suggest that Tehran is
offering financial and political assistance to the opposition in Bahrain.
The regime of the mullahs has long claimed ownership of the island, which it
refers to as Iran’s “14th province.”
The assertion of this claim has not
been confined to mere declarations.
Tehran 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 Khamenei, for the Bahraini opposition.
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
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 Shi’a Islamist
Haq movement, made these remarks in an interview with the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese
Al- Akhbar newspaper.
Senior Iranian officials, up to and including
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
From a Western point of view, there is an obvious cynicism at the
heart of Iranian support for the Bahraini protesters. 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.Support for
representative government and the right to protest are not factors. 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-Shi’a arc of conflict, centered on the
rival interests of Tehran 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 Shi’a Arabs are competing for power.
In each area,
the Iranians back the Shi’a interest while 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
No matter who 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.
contest 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
The Iranians are happy about this. The Saudis are
Neither side is democratic. Sectarian loyalties mark the
The roots of the enmity go down into past
The Sunni-Shi’a arc of conflict looks set to form the key
strategic process in the period now taking shape in the Middle East.