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Region | Homegrown: 14 Months of 'Bahrain Spring'


28 Apr 2012 10:32Comments

Debate over Iranian, Saudi influence in island nation obscures nature of social uprising.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a fellow at Truthout, an independent online magazine.
[ comment ] In Bahrain, 14 months into a popular uprising demanding reform from the country's royal family, the predominantly Shia activists who have led the protests -- and the political opposition before them -- are still constantly being scrutinized in the West through the lens of a so-called "cold war" among the Persian Gulf's three main powers: Iran, the United States, and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have been particularly vocal about Iran's reputed hand in the uprising, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in March 2011 that the opposition's debate over dialogue with the monarchy was giving Tehran "ways to...create problems" in the country.

A recent brouhaha on Twitter among Middle East and North Africa watchers and Bahraini activists over analyst Ed Husain's discussion of "Iranian influence" in Bahrain is indicative of how deeply distrustful foreign observers and the royal family of Bahrain are of the Shia-dominanted opposition. Husain's tweets focus on the need for reformers to come together to "beat Iran," informing his followers that the "bottom line on Bahrain" is "support the monarchy with more reforms, or create a pro-Iran colony through Isa Qasim" -- the leading cleric of the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, a Shia political party formed in 2001. In contrast, historian Toby C. Jones , who strongly disagrees with the idea that Iran has exercised substantial influence over the protests, remarked last month that the Saudi National Guard deployment signaled that the country was becoming "something of a Saudi colony, now in the sense that policies are merged."

Neither would be enviable outcomes for the country, but despite fears of broad Iranian influence in the country, it is the U.S.-Saudi alliance that has and continues to exercise the most "foreign interference" in Bahrain to the ongoing benefit of a royal family -- the Khalifas -- torn between concession, which Washington tepidly demands of them, and retrenchment, the preferential result for Riyadh.

Any attempts by Tehran to influence Bahraini politics would, of course, largely be aimed at countering the much greater influence exercised by the United States and Saudi Arabia there. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and a major Western arms recipient, arrangements that have increasingly fallen under congressional scrutiny. The Fifth Fleet is the most visible projection of U.S. power in the Persian Gulf, the cornerstone of U.S. military facilities along the eastern Gulf coast in the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait, whose primary purpose since 1979 has been to contain the Islamic Republic's ambitions (and, from 1990 to 2003, Saddam Hussein's as well).

The Saudis, for their part, have enthusiastically supported these containment efforts and opposed reformers in Bahrain by raising alarms about alleged Iranian influence. Bahrain's royal family is tied to the House of Saud through marriage and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) commitments, the latter of which brought a 1,300-strong detachment of Saudi National Guardsmen to Bahrain last year to help "restore order." With Iraq now dominated by a Shia government linked to Tehran, Riyadh fears any sort of linkage between Shia groups in Bahrain with Saudi Shiites in their own oil-rich Eastern Province, where the Shia population is concentrated near the Bahraini border.

Riyadh and Manama see, or at least play up the prospect of, the hand of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in all major disturbances to the status quo: "the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy prefers a simpler narrative of Shia against Sunni," Foreign Affairs' Kristin Smith Diwan remarked last year. Yet as an activist acerbically retorted to claims that Shiites have been responsible for deliberately aggravating "sectarian" tensions: "How many Sunni mosques did sh. Isa Qasim demolish?" French historian Olivier Roy also dismisses the idea of a Shia Crescent and an "Iranian fifth column" in Bahrain orchestrating the protests. "They [Arab Shiites] depend on Iranian patronage in a hostile Sunni environment," he notes, but they "have long understood the dangers of becoming instruments of Iran."

Indeed, the Islamic Republic is not the first Iranian regime to salivate over the prospect of planting its flag in Bahrain. When the Wall Street Journal warned last year that Iran has been seeking to control Bahrain for decades, it neglected to note that the pro-Western government of Reza Pahlavi sought to annex Bahrain as a "14th province" between 1957 and 1970, hoping a plebiscite would undermine a regional consensus regarding the then-British protectorate's borders. While an attempted coup in 1981 is widely thought to have been supported by the Islamic Republic, and talk of the lost "14th Province" surfaces in pro-Khamenei news outlets, Iran has not formally rejected the 1970 gentleman's agreement supporting Bahraini independence following the U.K.'s exit in 1971. The "PERSIAN GULF"-marked soccer pitch on the Iranian-controlled Gulf island of Abu Musa, also claimed by the UAE, vividly illustrates the tensions among these regional actors.

Yet if Iranian agents are the hidden hands within Shia organizations -- or even trying to set up emigré groups to parachute back into Bahrain, as they did against Saddam Hussein from 1982 on -- they seem to be doing a poor job of pulling anti-regime strings in Samara. If Tehran is secretly encouraging violence (taking the emergence of vigilantes in Sunni communities and more violent anti-regime demonstrators as evidence of a hoped-for clash?), then it is a policy sure to backfire since Bahrain can count on explicit GCC support for suppressing violence initiated by any possible pro-Iranian actors (and tacit U.S. support to "rein in" the situation). The Revolutionary Guards, in effect, cannot swim very well in the Gulf, while the Saudis can just drive over to the island.

And while the Guards have been blamed for terrorist plots before in Bahrain, there's no evidence -- just intimations from the royal family -- that the occasional violence by protestors has been anything but a response to the actions of their heavily armed oppressors: security forces have fired on demonstrators, made prolific use of tear gas, demolished mosques, and been accused of torture.

Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy suggests that Iran's influence is primarily limited to its efforts to appeal to the "Arab cause" against a Tel Aviv-Riyadh-Washington axis. Olivier Roy also thinks this, and according to the conservative Commentary magazine, an explicit show of pro-Iranian sentiment in Bahrain observed in 2011 was cheap propaganda: pro-Hezbollah posters alongside pro-Qasim ones. Supporters of the opposition point out that this sympathy is fueled not only by religious ties, but by the feeling that if the "international community supported the people of Bahrain, they wouldn't have to rely on Iran" -- or rather, think they can rely on Iran, as the events of the past year show that Bahrainis cannot count on real support from the Islamic Republic at all. A showboating effort to transport exiled dissents into Bahrain didn't even make it within sight of Bahraini warships; Iranian solidarity has so far primarily come in the form of media "incitement."

Tehran might bet on dialogue elevating Qasim to prominence, though it'd be a neat trick to see how such an outcome would actually give Iran what it most wants: a Fifth Fleet base closure and the ouster of the Khalifas. With such a weak hand to play in its own backyard, the Islamic Republic may be finding it more pragmatic to "sit this one out," even though "mounting Shiite suspicion toward Iran" is, according to Mehdi Khalaji, the result.

Ultimately, Bahrain's opposition is Bahraini, a view affirmed even by the so-called Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), the body tasked by the government to prepare a report on the violence and future reforms. The government does not try to argue that Iran somehow fomented the 2011 uprising, essentially conceding that it was inspired by the Arab Spring's successes elsewhere and based on a set of grievances the royal family has ostensibly committed to resolving for the past decade. This is also the official U.S. position, as attested to by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at a congressional hearing last March:

Q: Do you see any Iranian involvement in the protests and demonstrations and uprising in Bahrain?

A: ... [O]ur assessment now is that the internal discord in Bahrain is a domestic phenomenon that comes from the demands by the 70 percent Shia population for greater political rights, greater economic opportunities, and it requires a domestic solution.

Though no names were mentioned, it is clear that this exchange occurred with Isa Qasim and his fellow clerics in mind. The ties Qasim cultivated with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iraq have troubled Washington since before the Second Gulf War. In 2006, Al-Wefaq abandoned its policy of boycotting elections (causing a split within the movement) in order to push reform. And despite the resignation of Al-Wefaq members from parliament in protest of the security forces' actions, and Qasim's criticism of the government, Al-Wefaq has maintained that it wants to participate in a national dialogue to hammer out a resolution to the issues surrounding "February 14," shorthand for both the 2001 constitutional referendum that ostensibly set Bahrain on the path to a constitutional monarchy (it was modified in 2002 just ahead of its ratification, to the chagrin of many reformers), and the protests that began last year with calls for the implementation of democratic reforms.

Likely by virtue of its support for reform and constitutional monarchy, Al-Wefaq, in Laurence Louër's description, "is the only opposition force that can organize legal demonstrations and has been less targeted by repression than other political societies (none of its leaders, notably, are currently in prison)." This makes it an acceptable negotiating partner for disaffected Sunnis -- again, a "preference" for Sunnis by the government weakens as one moves down the ladder of political utility; not everyone can be a magistrate -- but a sellout to those who want the royals to make greater concessions.

Like the other regional monarchies, the House of Khalifa directs the state's electoral, judicial, and welfare policies along sectarian and tribal lines, favoring its most amenable technocrats and clerics. "Finite resources are best spent on satisfying a core constituency whose continued allegiance is sufficient to keep the government in power" -- that's how the Middle East Research and Information Project described the royal family's modus operandi earlier this year. Even without human rights violations to spur on activists, there are tensions throughout the island nation based on years of preferential treatment and the security forces' infamous conduct toward dissidents. Demonstrations and riots in reaction to discrimination and abuse occurred repeatedly between 1994 and 2001, to which the authorities generally responded with more discrimination and abuse. Bahraini security forces have repeatedly been identified as the main perpetrators of violence during the demonstrations by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and that is the underlying issue facing Bahraini reformers stuck between a U.S.-Saudi understanding and an unsure Iranian stance.

As Amnesty International noted, no senior official has yet been held accountable for any actions taken against demonstrators. This is worth noting because the culture of impunity among the government forces remains a major stumbling block to dialogue. Prior to the 2011 protests, analyst Justin Gengler observed that "variation in support for the Bahraini government among Shi'i citizens is unrelated to material wellbeing...while among Sunnis economic considerations are quite important in forming political attitudes." In sum, he continues, Shiites' "political orientation stems from dissatisfaction with the system as a whole, in which Shi'i social standing and access to political power is limited on the basis of confessional affiliation," while "ordinary Sunnis expect something in return" for "their nearly unwavering support." Because of these expectations, cracks have appeared in the Sunni edifice.

At the same time, Bahraini Shiites' political representation is becoming increasingly factionalized between Al-Wefaq and the less compromising forces that emerged after the street protests started to exacerbate existing tensions among Shia organizations (some of which are officially banned). And divisions among Sunnis now further complicate efforts to establish a national dialogue. Hardliners oppose ceding ground to the Shia opposition, whether led by Al-Wefaq or not -- and, for some time, it has been the "not" that has been doing the leading out on the streets.

Some elements within the royal family and the Defense Ministry are said to be supportive of Islamist rejectionists who appear to be using sectarian tensions to secure their traditional privileges by raising fears that Al-Wefaq, among others, seeks to establish a Shia-dominated state that would discriminate against the Sunni minority. With the recent Formula One Grand Prix having become a potent symbol for both protestors -- who see it as an attempt at whitewashing -- and the government -- which hopes to keep up an image of "normalization" despite its failures to implement recommended reforms -- there are fears that the situation will deteriorate further as a result of violence and arrests that occurred beyond the raceway. The government's apparent effort to shut out foreign media covering the protests ahead of the race does not bode well for the demonstrators.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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