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TitleWhy are the events in Bahrain significant to Iran?

Bahrain: the battlefield of the giants

25 Apr 2011

■ Ali Mohtadi

In 1971, a significant event took place in the Middle East region of which the consequences were not so clear at the time, but 40 years later, we have to look at the event from a different perspective. The daily journal of Asadullah Alal, the Minister of the Court and a close companion of the Shah, reveals that the Shah of Iran had been resisting the independence of Bahrain from Iran, but eventually he had no choice but to give in to a referendum whose results he knew all too well.

Up until then, Bahrain was part of the territories of Iran and the Persian-installed ruler of Bahrain was its governor. As the movement of the people of Bahrai for independence began, the international community joined them in their cause, and in practice the Shah was not faced with a dilemma but with the only choice left for him: agreeing to the independence of Bahrain. Perhaps, what made the Shah think long and hard was how he could in the course of accepting this independence get something in return from the West. It was agreed that a referendum must be held under the supervision of the UN for the people of Bahrain to vote for independence or remaining under the sovereignty of Iran. This is how the referendum was held in Iran and the Shah of Iran had to submit to an outcome which was all too clear in advance in a democratic gesture.

However, on the other hand, the Shah had become rich with the colossal oil revenues and he had given loans to great countries such as the UK and was thus holding them in debt to himself. Thus he had gained the privilege of full control over the Persian Gulf as the oil vein of the planet. During this phase, Iran interfered in the affairs of the countries of the Persian Gulf to the extent that with its direct military intervention, the coup d’état of Oman was defeated. In this military campaign, Iran did not find it necessary to liaise with the US – its closest ally.

In order to grasp the importance of this critical event, it would be useful to look at the process of independence in southern Sudan. Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese leader, was under heavy pressure from the international community because of the Darfur crisis, and The Hague had declared him as a criminal. Under these pressures, he had to agree to a referendum to decide about the fate of southern Sudan. The outcome of this referendum was clear right before it. Southern Sudan became independent and pressures on al-Bashir became less, to the extent that his case in the International Criminal Court has been put aside for a while and European countries and the US do not speak much about the need for the arrest of al-Bashir by Interpol.

However, for some time now, Bahrain has been witness to the uprising of the people of this country against the Al Khalifa dynasty and the violent crackdown on this movement. What is interesting here is the level of intervention by Iran in Bahrain. This interference reached a point that Hossein Shariatmadari, the license holder of Kayhan newspaper and close ally of the Supreme Leader in Iran, asked for the direct military intervention of Iran in Bahrain to support the cause of its people; he also mentioned the example of Iranian intervention in the case of Oman during the Shah’s time.

Such activities of the Iranian regime do not go unnoticed by the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and they make an effort to confront this; however, the question is why has Iran not considered the revolution of the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and even Syria as important but deals with the issue of Bahrain as a matter of utmost importance? The rulers of the Islamic Republic certainly have their own reasons for this level of intervention in an independent country in such an overt manner.

Why does Iran deal with the issue of Bahrain as a matter of utmost importance?

The ruling regime in Bahrain

The government of Bahrain resembles the Syrian regime in many ways. In Syria, which is a country with a Sunni majority, it is now over half a century that the Asad family, which belongs to the Alavi minority, runs the state. The foundations of this regime are based on the full support of Iran on the one hand and the occupation of certain parts of the Syrian territories by Israel on the other. When such a regime faces a revolt of people, it quickly realises that it has no popular grounds and no backing in the grassroots and thus it should either continue its hold on power with violent suppression or step down from power like the Shah of Iran or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the former President of Tunisia, before much bloodshed (like the case of Libya).

Iran is very well aware of the fact that there is a Shia majority in Bahrain and supporting them can guarantee a good foot hold for Iran in this strategic region in case of the collapse of the regime in Bahrain. This is what happened in Iraq. However, Syria is not a similar case because once Asad is removed from power, one of the most important (if not the most important) pillars of the foreign policy of Iran would be severely shaken or destroyed.

The Islamic Republic has an extremely weak foreign diplomacy and operates in an isolated space. Iran does not have the necessary means for putting diplomatic pressure on the international atmosphere (even in terms of propaganda). Thus, going back to its old habit, it tries to have an influence on the fate of Bahrain through public support for the revolutionaries in Bahrain and also covert operations there.

The Iranian regime has a long record of creating discord among one nation and then creating smaller groups among them and then raising one group to power. The case of Lebanon on the 1980s and then Iraq in recent years are good examples of this policy. The tense atmosphere in Lebanon, which was struggling with war in the 1980s, allowed Iran to first create smaller groups in this country and then support Hizbullah to come into full military confrontation with the other Shii group (the Amal movement) so that Lebanon eventually comes to a point that its fate rests in the hands of the Hizbullah. The same atmosphere came into being in Iraq in a different way and this scenario is now happening in Bahrain.

Nonetheless, the global atmosphere is not the same as during those years and at least the active media may cause obstacles for this strategy to bear fruit. A glance at the recent statement of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCAG) and the reproachful attitude of these countries towards Iran, beside the impressive move of Kuwait against Iran in the case of arresting some people on charges of espionage and then as this confrontation spread across other Arab countries, shows that these countries are trying to take action against Iran now so that they would not have to be in a passive and reactionary position towards Iran in a not too far future.

The Oil Highway

Geopolitically, Bahrain is located in a point in the Persian Gulf which is a critical passage for the transport of oil in a region which provides the greatest part of the world’s oil. In circumstances where the Hormuz strait is pretty much controlled by Iran, Bahrain can easily become a location which can be a manoeuvring area for the forces opposing Iran before Iran takes control of the area. It is exactly for this reason that the US has chosen this small country as the site for building one of its biggest military bases in the world and has concentrated a large number of its military force there. Beside a military base, the US has established its largest marine patrol outside the US territories in the US: the US Marines in this country are from 53 different nationalities and they serve their military service in this area. Every now and then, senior intelligence authorities of the US visit them. Michael Chertoff, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, was visiting this military base in Bahrain in 2007 and said that the very powerful presence of the US in Bahrain is a clear message to supporters of terrorism proving that this strategic region cannot become a battle ground for them to show their power with the US remaining indifferent to it.

It is clear that as much as the tensions in Bahrain are a valuable gift to Iran, the US and its allies are greatly concerned, to the point that they completely ignore the suppression in Bahrain and even move further than this to send the Saudi Arabian Army to Bahrain to assist the government in crackdowns.
On the other hand, Iran has no intention of ignoring the situation in Bahrain and there is every chance that if the situation goes on for a while, it may send forces of the Revolutionary Guards from Lebanon to engage in military action. This kind of engagement is quite possible if the Shia groups in Bahrain ask for the full support of the Supreme Leader of Iran and then if voices are heard in Iran that it is a religious duty to support the people of Bahrain. The government of Bahrain has immediately sensed this threat and dismantled all Shia political parties in Bahrain so that at least they are deprived of any legal protection and they can be suppressed much easier.

Iran has no intention of ignoring the situation in Bahrain


Bahrain: the espionage centre in the Persian Gulf

Many years ago, the lifestyle and the demography of the Lebanese society allowed the powerful countries of the world to establish their intelligence bases in these countries. Lebanon has always been one of the most important areas in the world for security and intelligence activities. However, since civil war started in Lebanon and it continued for a while, the space for any kind of reconnaissance work became very much limited. It is quite natural that when streets of a country turn into a shooting field and setting up check points, and kidnapping becomes the rule and the means of fighting, any kind of intelligence and reconnaissance work is disrupted. Therefore, this reconnaissance centre was gradually dismantled and it was replaced by Cyprus.

In the Persian Gulf, though, a similar location is neither Kuwait nor Saudi Arabia or Qatar: it is Bahrain which is the host of the bigger intelligence and security services in the world, thus making this small country an important strategic point. If we put together the military and intelligence elements, these two are sufficient to turn the disruption of the security of a country into a threat. The people of Bahrain are pursuing their demands of freedom and they may not clearly realise that their movement has pushed the world to stop the downfall of the Bahrain regime and prevent the sliding of all the huge assets of the Persian Gulf directly towards Iran.

Bahrain and its impact on the Saudi Arabia

Bahrain is located near the al-Qatif area in the East of Saudi Arabia. This area has the largest number of Shias as a minority which is under pressure in Saudi Arabi. Immediately following the tensions in Bahrain, the people of al-Qatif started similar movements. One can imagine that if the Bahrain regime collapses and the Shias in Bahrain rise to power, the Shia minority of al-Qatif will not remain silent and will start movements against the central government.
This situation becomes even further complicated when we see that the Shias in the north of Yemen (the al-Houthi group) have been fighting Saudi Arabia and causing problems on behalf of Iran. Now, after the situation in Yemen, the space for the resumption of their activities after a period of an iron fist rule becomes much opener.

Since the Arab countries have no considerable popular grounding, they are faced with this real threat that if the Shia minorities who make up the minority in most of these countries start an uprising, people from other tribes and clans may join them, thus making the control and suppression of this uprising extremely difficult for the central government. The victory of the Bahrain movement can become a starting point in the countries of the Persian Gulf encouraging the Shias in the East of Saudi Arabia to make a move. At the same time the Shias in the South of Saudia Arabia may put pressure on the government in the border areas with Yemen. In other countries like Kuwait, the Shia can become united with the Bedouins and follow up on these movements and eventually make the entire region unstable.

When Iran finds a strong foothold in Iraq, it is most wise if Tehran looks for bases in Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and start a full fight with the governments of these countries. Whether the Islamic Republic’s dream of monopolising the Persian Gulf and defeating the US and its allies is realised or whether the West can manage these events in the Persian Gulf relying on the Saudi Arabia, is an issue which eventually depends on the fate of Bahrain. Bahrain has an area of over 700 square kilometres of which only 400 square kilometres are desert land. This country has now become a battlefield for the influential countries of the world to flex their muscles. In this muscle-flexing, the people of Bahrain are used as the fighting gloves.

 
Tehran Review
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