Arab World: The troubled island in Iran’s backyard

The White House’s ability to calm the turmoil in Bahrain will be key to stabilizing the Persian Gulf and checking Tehran’s influence.

Persian Gulf Map 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Persian Gulf Map 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Until last week, Bahrain was an overlooked, underreported speck on the regional map, an island fiefdom known in the West as home to an annual Formula One auto race and, presumably, a few oil wells.
But by the start of February, popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had stoked old grievances across the Arab world, and by mid-month a disparate collection of disaffected Bahrainis had come together to organize a large-scale protest for February 14, the 10th anniversary of a national charter aimed at quashing dissent by enacting limited political reforms. Bahrain’s Health Ministry estimates seven people have been killed since security forces opened fire on the protesters who first took their grievances to the streets.
On Wednesday, King Hamad Al Khalifa ordered the release of more than 300 prisoners, including 23 Shi’ites who had been accused of trying to topple him. The release was one of the major demands of the opposition, and underscored the regime’s desire to get reform talks going before stability is undermined further.
Hassan Meshaima was one of two exiles pardoned in the deal. On Wednesday he was already making his way back to Bahrain, but was detained in Lebanon because of a preexisting international warrant for his arrest on charges of subverting the monarchy.
Meshaima leads the al-Haq political group, considered more radical in its views than the more moderate Shi’ite groups that have so far led protests. His return could provide an opening for more radical elements – in the government and in the opposition – to stoke sectarian tensions between the Sunni ruling class and the Shi’ite majority.
BAHRAIN LIES in a strategic position in the Persian Gulf, through which a fifth of the world’s oil supplies pass, and is one of Washington’s closest regional allies.
The country hosts the headquarters of the 6,000-member US Navy Fifth Fleet – responsible for all naval forces in the Persian Gulf and as such, Bahrain served as a launch pad in both Iraq wars and would likely do the same in any future conflict with Iran.
The kingdom’s envoy to the US, Houda Ezra Nonoo, is the first Jewish ambassador of an Arab state and the third woman ambassador in Bahrain’s history. Safely ensconced in Washington, she has generally remained quiet throughout the recent unrest.
Economic and political discontent are one element of the Bahrain protests, but the rift that runs most deeply through the country is religious. Shi’ites account for about 70 percent of its 525,000 native-born citizens, and have long complained of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni monarchy, including being denied important political and military posts. The Sunni Al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since the early 19th century, and King Hamad took the throne in 1999.
To try to offset the Shi’ite majority, the regime has for years offered citizenship to Sunnis from Arab nations and elsewhere, notably South Asia, and many of the new citizens are given state jobs. Some victims of police brutality reported of their assailants bantering in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.
Bahrain is one of the few Gulf nation’s with a popularly elected parliament, but its powers are limited. Protesters want to end the monarchy’s ability to select the prime minister and other key political positions, and the leading Shi’ite political bloc has pulled its 18 lawmakers from the 40-seat parliament.
Analysts say the White House’s ability to calm the turmoil in Bahrain will be key to stabilizing the Persian Gulf and checking Iran’s influence.
In 1981, the Iranian-backed Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain attempted a coup, but Bahrain’s Shi’ites have long said their protests have nothing to do with Iran and everything with wanting to be accepted as full Bahraini citizens. They accuse the ruling family of waving the specter of Iranian expansion to stop the West from supporting them.
Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, told The Jerusalem Post that if free and fair elections were held in Bahrain, the Shi’ite majority could be expected to vote in a pro-Iranian government.
“Shi’ites are 70 percent of the population, and they’re certainly not in favor of the regime,” he said.
“Iran does have extensive contacts there – Bahrain is its backyard.”
In 2009 a commander of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards caused a diplomatic incident between Tehran and Manama by describing Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province.”
“We all remember what happened when Saddam Hussein declared Kuwait the seventh province of Iraq,” Bar said.
EARLY THIS week The Washington Post reported that US officials are trying to convince their Gulf counterparts that the greatest danger in continuing violence would be a radicalization of Shi’ite elements of the protest movement.
“The failure of the United States to back the protests will fuel anger against the US government and drive the Shi’ites toward Iran,” a former official said. “Someone will step in to exploit this situation, and Iran is already moving to do that.”
“If the Iranian plans to oust the Bahrain government and appoint a loyal head of state in his place succeed, their multiple goals would be achieved without any military movement,” Haggai Carmon, an international attorney and author based in Israel and New York, wrote in The Huffington Post on Monday. “The Iranians will cause the ousting of the threatening Fifth Fleet from Manama port. They will hold a strategic point near the straits of Hormuz where 20% of the US oil supply passes and they will signal to the other Gulf states with Shi’ite population – such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to get in line with Iran, or else.”
But a 2008 diplomatic cable released last year by WikiLeaks offers a different perspective. In it, the US Embassy in Manama relayed warnings the Khalifa family had aired to US officials over Iran sowing dissent among Bahraini Shi’ites. “Some Bahraini Sunnis, in and out of government, suggest to foreigners (and may even believe themselves) that Iran is behind Shi’ite discontent here,” the cable said.
US officials, however, seemed skeptical: “In [diplomatic] post’s view, there is not convincing evidence of Iranian involvement here since at least the mid-1990s...
Shia discontent stems chiefly from their lower standard of living, unofficial exclusion from sensitive government positions and Sunni domination of parliament.”
THE REGION’S volatility renders predictions of any kind hazardous. But analysts at home and abroad are united in the belief that the influence of Bahrain on the future of the Arab world will far outweigh its size. Asked if he was hopeful about Bahrain’s prospects, Bar took a deep breath. “I’m a realist,” he said. “A pessimist is an optimist with experience.”