Gulf becomes fault line for Sunni–Shi'ite tensions

The war of words between Gulf countries and Iran is growing sharper and is increasing the risk of becoming a real conflict.

By DAVID E. MILLER / THE MEDIA LINE
June 5, 2011 21:07
Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad

Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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Being a Saudi soccer fan is no fun these days. The reason has little to do with the players' sportsmanship, but with the abuses fans have been forced to put up with in recent matches in Iran. "Death to Saudi Arabia," shouted the Iranian fans during a game between the Iranian club of Piroozi and the Saudi club of Al-Ittihad May 3, as they tried to burn a Saudi flag.

On both sides of the Gulf – a body of water whose name is even a source of contention with a debate on whether it should be the Persian or Arab Gulf – tensions have risen both in the corridors of power and on the street. But rather than being defined as a struggle over national interests, both sides are determined to cast in religious terms – another chapter in a thousand-year-old contest between the Sunni and Shi'ite branches if Islam. And, unlike in the past, both sides are ready to talk about it openly, thereby fanning the flames.

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"Arab Gulf countries have been concerned about Iran's hegemonic plans for some time, but as a result of the Bahrain situation some of that fear has come to the fore in openly hostile rhetoric," Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based think tank, told The Media Line.

The war of words in the Gulf is filled with risk for the West. The region contains the world’s biggest reserves of oil and Iran is believed by the US and Europe to be developing nuclear weapons to enhance its power. The US has troops in Iraq and the US Navy Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.

The issue that enraged the Iranian fans was Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom situated just off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia – a potential tinderbox where Sunni and Shi'ites live side by side in a country adjacent to some of the world’s biggest oil fields.

With an estimated 70% Shi'ite majority, but ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifah dynasty, unrest erupted in the kingdom in February. The protesters demand political reforms and an end to discrimination, but in the eyes of the government and Sunni minority the rioters quickly revealed their sectarian nature.

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Blaming Iran for sparking the unrest, King Hamed Al Khalifah, summoned Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces to quell the uprising in March, enraging Shi'ite Iran and failing to end the sectarian dispute. Dialogue between government and opposition broke down, and on May 17 seven Shi'ite parliament members from the Al-Wefaq party tendered their resignation, joining eleven Shi'ite colleagues who left parliament in March.

But the violence on the Iranian soccer court only expressed what many Gulf Arabs regard as Iran’s deep-seeded animosity to Arab culture. And now Arabs across the Gulf are starting to fight back.

Sectarian tensions have even spilled over into places like Kuwait, which traditionally enjoyed good inter-communal relations.

Three Kuwaiti Sunni Islamist lawmakers petitioned last month to question Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, barely two weeks into the tenure of his new government. A local version of a non-confidence vote, the question was titled "the damage caused to Kuwait's national security as a result of his government's foreign policy alignment with the Iranian regime."

The move followed a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to Kuwait on May 18. Salehi was trying to calm Kuwaitis after an alleged Iranian spy chain was exposed in Kuwait. Two Iranians and a Kuwaiti were sentenced to death for forming the cell, reportedly associated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Senior Iranian diplomats, including the ambassador, were banished from Kuwait. 

"Loyalty to Arab land … is the common denominator defining the identity of the Gulf Arab, in spite of those who do not call it 'the Arab Gulf'," wrote Abd Al-Latif Al-Atiqi in an editorial in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabs on May 23, referring to the age-old dispute between Iran and the Arab world on the correct name for 'the Gulf'.

"I have lived in Iran for 40 days and I speak some Persian. When watching a play in Teheran I witnessed all too well their deep hatred for everything Arab. I will not forget it my entire life," Al-Atiqi wrote.       

Sheikh warned that the failure to politically resolve the social unrest in Bahrain could lead to an open confrontation between Iran and Arab Gulf states.

"I'm worried that if the situation isn’t handled carefully, it could spin out of control," Sheikh said, adding that even military confrontation could be imminent – stimulated by a host of unresolved political issues. Among those are a territorial dispute between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran over the tiny Gulf Islands of Abu-Mousa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, which were allegedly illegally occupied by Iran in November 1971.

The political body spearheading the fight against what it dubs "Iranian expansionism" is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Established in 1981 by six Gulf countries: Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia. Qatar, UAE and Oman, the GCC set out to contain the increasing Iranian influence in the Arab Gulf both economically and militarily. The Peninsula Shield Force, led by Saudi Arabia and deployed in Bahrain in March to quash Shi'ite-led anti government protests, was the GCC's first tour de force in years.

GCC foreign ministers, traditionally cautious about arousing the Arab-Iranian tension, have broken their silence on Iran in recent months. In early March they condemned Iran's "blatant" interference in Kuwait's affairs after the spy chain was revealed. In April, the GCC condemned Iran again, saying the Iranian actions "aimed at destabilizing national security and spreading division and sectarian strife in GCC countries."

Abdullah Al-Shayji, head of the political science department at Kuwait University, says Kuwaitis were growing increasingly wary of Iranian ambitions in the Gulf.

"We are in the midst of a cold war with Iran," he says. 

"There is widespread belief among many Kuwaitis that Iran is causing a lot of mischief in the area," Al-Shayji told The Media Line. "It has supported the Syrian regime in its repression of its own people, as well as many non-state actors."

Al-Shayji noted that the GCC foreign ministers have met four times recently to discuss Iran, using harsher language than ever before. But he says the cold war with Iran was unlikely to deteriorate into a full-fledged military conflict.

"The Iranians are smart, they won’t directly fight but rather continue to use their proxies in the region," Al-Shayji says.
 
However, the Arab Gulf is investing a whopping $120 billion in military purchases, including advanced fighter planes and anti-missile defense systems over the coming years, indicating that military engagement with Iran is a very real scenario.

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