Saudi Arabia’s decision to deploy security forces in embattled Bahrain threatens to escalate a domestic political dispute in the island state into a sectarian confrontation with Iran, whose reverberations may be felt as far afield as Iraq and Lebanon, analysts said.
Saudi Arabia, together with security personnel from the United Arab Emirates operating under a mandate from the Gulf Cooperation Council, has placed 2,000 soldiers and police in Bahrain. At the cost of four lives, scores of injured and the imposition of martial law, calm has been restored. A week after the March 14 deployment, businesses, the stock market and schools were re-opening.
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But analysts said the Saudi move – the first ever by one Arab state intervening militarily in another since the onset of the so-called Jasmine Revolution three months ago – has crossed a red line for Iran and may prompt it to intervene as a counterweight.
A tiny country with no oil of its own, Bahrain nevertheless holds a strategic place in the Gulf. It is home to the US Fifth Fleet and is adjacent to Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil fields. Its Sunni Islamic monarchy is close to the Saudi ruling house as well as the US, but some 70% of its population shares the Shi'ite faith of Iran, Riyadh’s rival for regional supremacy.
“Iran sees it as an attack on the international Shi'ite community,” Theodore Karasik, director for research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for near east and Gulf Military Analysis. “Also, they have claimed Bahrain in the past, as a historical claim, is Iran’s 14th province. That kind of rhetoric is a portent for the future.”
Iran has already lashed out rhetorically against the Saudi move. Although the GCC forces were invited by Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and the US says it was not consulted prior to the action, Tehran has referred to the action as an invasion it blames on the US On Saturday, hundreds of Iranians stoned the Saudi embassy in Tehran to protest the “killing of Muslims in Bahrain,” Agence France Press reported. Bahrain and Tehran have both recalled their ambassadors.
Tehran has cheered on opposition protesters across the Middle East, including Bahrain, and King Hamad said Sunday that unnamed foreign forces had been working to undermine the government, a clear reference to Tehran. But Karasik said Iran isn’t believed to have actively supported protesters anywhere.
While Bahrain said GCC forces were invited simply “to defuse the tension in Bahrain,” analysts said Saudi Arabia had much bigger concerns. One is stopping what it perceived as a Shiite assault against a Sunni ally. Another is preserving the Bahraini monarchy for fear that one disposed king will whet the appetites of democratic opposition leaders to target the Saudi and other monarchies.
Moody’s Investors Service said the kingdom’s chief concern was Iran’s ambitions to become the unrivaled power in the Gulf, if not the wider Middle East. Moody’s warned that the Saudi move would probably lead to increased tensions between GCC countries and Iran.
“This may have consequence for countries further afield, such as Lebanon and Iraq, which have acted as arena for competing regional and international powers,” Moody’s said.
Both Iraq and Lebanon have substantial Shi'ite populations competing with Sunni Muslims and other sects for control of the countries. Iran has been active in Lebanon by backing the Shi'ite Hezbollah movement, which has emerged as the country’s biggest military force and dominant political party.
In fact, Riyadh may have miscalled the source of tensions in Bahrain – and awakened the genie of Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation it hoped to put down.
Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at London’s Chatham House, said in a March 18 comment that the protests that have shaken Bahrain for more than a month haven’t been about religion, but on corruption, unemployment and political reform. Discrimination against the Shi'ite majority is a core issue as well, but it had been expressed in political terms until recently, she said.
But even before the GCC forces arrived, the complexion of the protests was changing, with opposition leaders urging the toppling of the monarchy, which was causing a panic among Bahraini’s Sunni minority. “These fears are driving an increasing number of Bahraini – usually tolerant and well-educated – into frightened and sectarian stances,” Kinninmont wrote.
The Saudi move will almost certainly exacerbate the sectarian nature of the conflict, said Karasik, thereby opening a door to Iran to exploit the situation. But, he said, Tehran would not risk mimicking Saudi Arabia’s actions by dispatching its own forces.
“It will be rhetorical support and subversion, which is typically the
Iranian strategy,” he said. Certain [Bahraini] opposition groups will
probably come to some kind of agreement with the government, whereas
others will go underground and undertake subversive activity, which
would fit right into Iranian plans.”
Tellingly, Zaher Rostami, the secretary-general of the Iranian Red
Crescent Society, told state-run Press TV it was ready to send “relief
forces” to help Bahrainis with medical supplies and services.