This post appeared in its original form at offiziere.ch.
News outlets and commentators are abuzz recently regarding combat strategy against the Islamic State (IS) and the involved
Middle East players. Analysis revolves around
ited States Iran, Syria, the Europeans and others and
their role in defeating IS.
To the south, traditional Sunni power
Saudi Arabia recently held discussions
with their Shiite foil, Iran,
regarding regional security cooperation. You heard right: the Middle
East’s two biggest rivals now want to work together in a limited
capacity. The Middle East’s focus has been on the battle against IS; however, a
Saudi-Iranian détente could have an effect on the turbulent situation in Bahrain.
A History of Influence
Separated by less than 200 miles of water,
Bahrain and Iran have been entangled
since the former’s independence in 1971. With a Shiite population of roughly
75%, Bahrain has long been
ruled by the Khalifa dynasty - Sunnis who represent a definite minority among Bahrain’s
Muslim population. With Bahrain’s
oil subsidies dried up by the late 1970’s and its Shiite population living in
squalor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini selected Bahrain as one of the first targets
for its exported Islamic revolution.
Khomeini’s forces backed
Bahrain’s Shiite revolutionaries as
they attempted a coup
in 1981, embedding indefinite suspicion in the minds of the ruling Khalifas
regarding Bahraini Shiites and their supposed revolutionary backers. As a
result, discrimination against Bahraini Shiites is commonplace, and since the
suspension of the parliament in the mid 1970s, representation of Shiites at the
national level, representing Shiite interests, is non-existent.
Saudi and Iranian Hands in the Pot
Such conditions make
Bahrain ripe for discontent and
protest. As a participant in the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, Bahraini Shiites
declared a “Day of Rage” to protest their mistreatment and demand equal
representation in the eyes of the law. In an act of solidarity to their
monarchical compatriots, the kingdoms of Saudi
Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent reserve
troops to the island to bolster the Bahrain Security Forces and maintain order
and security in the kingdom. A National Dialogue was set up in order to create
understanding between the government and protesters, with hopes that grievances
would be solved and Shiites would gain some form of equality in Bahrain,
but the talks have gone nowhere.
Throughout the 2011 uprising and in the years since, the Bahraini government played the
card with reckless abandon. This tactic achieves several goals. Labeling
Bahraini Shiites as Iranian proxies ensures support from the aforementioned
Gulf monarchies, as they assuredly want to preserve the stability a long-term
Sunni monarchy in the region provides.
Also, it ensures support from one of the island’s biggest clients: the
government. Bahrain is the
home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, responsible for maritime security in the Gulf
region and a longtime adversary of Iran and its military. Claiming
Iranian involvement in their native insurgency ensures American support for the
regime, as they also desire stability in a country housing thousands of service
members and their families.
Last but not least, blaming
Iran takes pressure off the Bahraini
government. Using Iran
as a scapegoat takes the spotlight off the government’s longtime treatment of
Shiites and their heavy-handed response to the protests, which left dozens dead
and hundreds more behind bars for dubious reasons.
of meddling in the affairs of other Middle Eastern countries is hardly without
reason. Iran has been trying
to export the Islamic Revolution for 30 years, and their botched coup in Bahrain is
reason enough for mistrust in the regime. Add that to decades of involvement in
Lebanon via their proxy
Hezbollah, and their support for the Assad regime during the Syria crisis, and it’s easy to see why Iran is such an easy target, especially in Bahrain.
Détente and Dialogue
has become a Middle Eastern battleground. Saudi
Arabia and other moderate Sunni states oppose IS, as does
backing their Shiite neighbors against radical Sunnis. In a case of “the enemy
of my enemy is my friend,” Saudi Arabia
find themselves fighting the same battle. In that light, Iran’s foreign minister arrived in Riyadh for meetings with
his Arab counterpart on regional cooperation late last month. The consequences
of cooperation between these two states could be monumental, especially for Bahrain.
As I’ve outlined above,
Arabia and Iran
are both vying for influence in Bahrain
and backing parties on either side of the conflict. The National Dialogue,
formed following the uprisings, is the government’s attempt to reach common
ground with the opposition regarding their claims and grievances. The Dialogue,
however, has been less than productive. In its first year, the Dialogue moved
slowly, with no agreements reached. At the beginning of this year, and the
government was criticized for basing discussions on a Sunni-Shiite divide, when
opposition and outside entities claimed the discussions were based on
grievances of the people with the regime.
The government’s claim they are facing a Sunni-Shiite divide is a perfect example of Saudi-Iranian influence on the process. Multiple discussions within the dialogue have focused on Iranian influence on the opposition, despite a glaring lack of evidence. A Saudi-Iranian détente is the perfect opportunity to rid the Dialogue of talks of Iranian and Saudi influence in the process and focus on the issues at hand. With an agreement in place on
Bahrain, the talks will no longer
be marred by suspicion of outside actors and the government will be forced to
negotiate from a place of legitimate grievances, not blaming stalled
negotiations on a nonexistent Iranian invisible hand.
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