While the Arab awakening or Arab Spring, as it’s been dubbed, has focused world attention on Egypt, Libya and Syria, a potentially explosive drama is unfolding elsewhere in the region, in Bahrain. The jury is still out as to how the conflicts in Libya and Syria will resolve themselves, or if this awakening will, indeed, be instrumental in heralding democratic reforms in Egypt and elsewhere. While their consequences for Israel remain unclear, what is certain is that these upheavals have worsened the historically tense relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, one immediate consequence of which has been the triple-digit spike in oil prices
On March 14th, at the request of Bahrain’s ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa family, Saudi Arabia, leading a special contingent under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a league of Sunni-led Gulf states, rolled in its troops into Bahrain. The force violently quelled protests instigated by Bahrain’s Shiite majority that were supposedly centered on demands for political and economic reforms. What the Kingdoms of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia saw as the basis of these demonstrations, was yet another attempt by Iran to assert its influence in its quest for Gulf hegemony. According to Bill Spindle and Margaret Coker in their article entitled: The New Cold War, March 14th represented a turning point in the escalation of the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since March 14th, the rhetoric between Saudi Arabia and Iran has escalated. Riyadh is further heating matters up by increasing the size of its military and National Guard and by proclaiming its intention to go nuclear should Iran not be halted in its nuclear aspirations.
As for the U.S., Saudi Arabia, which views itself as pro-Western, saw America’s outright support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster as a betrayal of what Spindle and Coker term a key bulwark in what Riyadh perceives as a great Sunni wall standing against an expansionist Iran. Indeed, for the Saudis this was one of a series of betrayals which included America’s refusal to push the Saudi’s Israel-Palestinian peace initiative, which Riyadh is convinced would go far to undermine Iranian influence that breeds on traditional Arab grievances. As a result, Saudi sentiment combined with Bahrain’s strategic importance, — it being the home to America’s Fifth Fleet, with one-fifth of the world’s oil passing through the Gulf region—has, Spindle and Coker argue, forced America to pull back on its blanket support for democratic reform in the region, undermining, in turn, healthy democratic movements, especially in Bahrain and Yemen.
Jacques Neriah sees the Iranian threat to U.S. national security and economic interests in Bahrain as being exceedingly high. He argues in Could the Kingdom of Bahrain Become an Iranian Pearl Harbour? that, given Iran’s proclivity for asymmetric warfare, it needn’t attack the U.S. naval facility to do away with the U.S. military presence. All it needs to do is topple the pro-American regime of the Al-Khalifa family and replace it with a new Bahraini regime backed by the Shi’a majority which seeks the immediate withdrawal of the fleet.
That Iran has had its eye on acquiring Bahrain is clear. In 2009, Neriah points out, Ali Akbar Nateq, an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Bahrain Iran’s fourteenth province. Even though relations between Bahrain and Iran have remained formally cordial, Bahrain has sided with the U.S. in condemning Iran’s nuclear program and are, as well, partnering with the CIA in the acquisition of counter-terrorism intelligence. The U.S., Neriah argues, has every reason to be concerned, and not only by what happens in Bahrain, but by its potential for inciting Shi’a uprisings in neighbouring oil-rich Al-Ahsaa, situated in eastern Saudi Arabia. Should the U.S., as it did in Egypt, fail to support its allies in Bahrain, Tehran would, he maintains, seize this opportunity to deepen its subversive activities in both Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia.
There is no question that Iran has capitalized on the instabilities emerging out of the Middle East. Whatever Arab feelings towards Iran might be, Stratfor’s George Friedman notes in his Iraq, Iran and the Next Move, Iran is perceived, especially in Iraq, as being a rising power. Subsequently, he argues, given Iraq’s fragmented coalition and Iran’s increased regional influence, Iraq may be forced to negotiate an accommodation with Tehran. This possibility is further strengthened by the immanent withdrawal of American troops.
At present, Saudi influence, in the form of funds funneled to Sunni groups in Iraq, offers the only immediate counter to growing Iranian hegemony. Still, with its military now involved in Bahrain and on the alert in Yemen, it is no match for Iran. The critical issue for the Saudis, Friedman writes, is America’s long-term commitment to the regime. But, given America’s equivocal support for Saudi Arabia in Bahrain and its inability to stabilize matters in Yemen, this commitment, the Saudis believe, is not assured. Indeed, should U.S. commitment not be forthcoming, a consequence of what Friedman sees as U.S. President Obama’s unwise policy of careful neglect, Saudi Arabia may be ultimately forced to institute its own accommodations with Iran. Given, as well, America’s current inability or desire to engage in the region, Friedman warns, it, too, may be placed in a situation where accommodation with Iran will be its only viable option.
Given this possible outcome, Saudi Arabia is not sitting still. In light of what it views as an unprecedented threat to regional security, it has become pro-active. For instance, attempts to project a unified response by the Sunni Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) that consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are being made under its leadership. As an example, it backed a no-fly zone in Libya. But, as Shadi Hamid points out in From the Arab Spring comes a More Unified GCC, there are intrinsic policy differences that prevent a fully cohesive response from emerging. Qatar, as an example, from which Al Jazeera emanates, has taken an independent stance on the uprisings that has favoured the rebels. While the other members of the GCC have placed themselves firmly in the pro-stability camp, Iran and its proxies are continuing to stir up the waters and take advantage of the turmoil. Meanwhile, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and Qatar have begun to emerge as a non-aligned axis – each pursuing its own direction. In this regard, Hamid writes, the Arab Cold War has not gone away, but has become considerably more complex.
Outside the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia has also started engaging Jordan and Morocco and rallying the Muslim nations of Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Central Asia to take a diplomatic and potentially military stand against Iran. But, as Mathew Rosenberg writes in Saudi Bid to Curb Iran Worries U.S. it is Pakistan’s involvement that is proving to be exceedingly worrisome to the U.S.
Despite flexing its muscles regionally, all is not well on Iran’s home front. Israzine would like to direct readers’ attention to Gary H. Johnson’s article The Purge of the Hajatieh Society, in Perspectives. It explores the current theological and political tensions existing between Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that centre on the belief held by Ahmadinejad and twenty-five members of his Iranian inner circle that the Hidden Imam orchestrated the Arab Spring and that his emergence is immanent. The recent arrest of these twenty-five individuals on the charge of sorcery, that carries a death sentence, has focused attention on what Dore Gold points out, is an enormous irrational factor that was added into the Iranian Nuclear equation and, as such, directly challenges Western belief that Iran can be rationally persuaded through economic sanctions to abandon its nuclear ambitions.