A war of words has erupted between Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors over the fate of Bahrain, catapulting unrest in the tiny island nation into a regional crisis with both political and sectarian overtones.
In a reflection of the tensions, a Gulf Arab foreign minister warned April 4 that the Gulf Cooperation Council is now “ready to enter war with Iran and even with Iraq in defense of Bahrain," which he called a red line. “Every state of the Gulf Cooperation Council is a red line. All are the same and we are ready to enter war to defend ourselves,” he told al Hayat newspaper.
The new tensions pit Iran against the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with Iraq playing a side role. Unusually blunt threats from both sides stem from rival visions of Bahrain’s political protests, which began on February 14 when mostly Shiite protestors took to the streets to demand greater political and social rights. They also called for the resignation of the prime minister, who has served for over four decades.
Like all the Gulf states, Bahrain’s royal family is Sunni. But over 65 percent of the population is Shiite, like Iran. The Shiite majority has long faced discrimination in politics, jobs and the economy, and society generally. The ruling al Khalifa family, however, has tried to depict the unrest as Iran-inspired.
On March 21, King Hamad said, "An external plot has been fomented for 20 to 30 years for the ground to be ripe for subversive designs." Bahrain even accused Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite movement, of involvement. Manama also suspended flights to Iran and Iraq, where Shiites are the largest sector of society.
Bahrain, an archipelago with just over one million citizens, cracked down brutally against peaceful protesters. Security forces moved in to clear out a protest camp-in at Pearl Square that had been modeled on Egypt’s uprising. At least five people died after security forces opened fire. The sheikhdom then invoked regional dangers to win military support from its neighbors. On March 14, Saudi Arabia deployed 1,000 troops in Bahrain, while the U.A.E. and Kuwait both promised police and navy back-up. All told, twenty-five people have reportedly died and hundreds have been wounded since protests began.
Tehran has been highly critical of the crackdown and condemned the deployment of GCC troops in Bahrain.Iran’s parliament warned that the GCC was "playing with fire" by sending "occupation" troops to Bahrain. Conservative parliamentarian Ruhollah Hosseinian said Iran should take a tougher position against the Saudi military presence. “There must be no hesitation on the part of Iran for military preparation,” he said, “when the Saudi government has driven its troops into another country.”
The GCC shot back against the “false accusations,” noting that the troops—known as Peninsula Shield forces—were invited under GCC treaty agreements. The GCC was founded in 1981 ostensibly to defend against potential Iranian encroachment. Its tough statement on April 3 strongly condemned “Iranian interference” in Bahrain’s internal affairs and accused Tehran of "policies of aggression" that threatened regional security.
The statement was striking for two reasons: First, the GCC discarded its usually restrained public language on Iran, opting for a more aggressive tone. Second, the GCC states have never fully agreed on Iran among themselves. Oman has strong ties to the Islamic Republic. Qatar has increasingly reached out to Tehran. Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, counts Iran among its most important trade partners. Even Kuwait has had reasonably good relations since the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. So GCC unanimity in such strong terms was striking.
Further fanning the regional flames, Kuwait uncovered an alleged Iranian spy ring in late March. The diplomatic rift was reminiscent of the 1980s, when most Gulf states supported Iraq in its brutal 1980-1988 war with Iran. Revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini routinely called for the overthrow of Gulf monarchies, with the sheikhdoms frequently alleging Iran-backed plots against them.
The war of words is increasingly played out in the media. Iran's Arabic language Al-Alaam TV regularly airs video footage of wounded and beaten Bahraini protestors. The print media excoriate Saudi and U.A.E "occupation" forces. In turn, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television recently hosted a discussion on the "Iranian conspiracy" in Kuwait, in which two major guests agreed that Iran was dangerous to the region. When a third guest suggested otherwise, the host aggressively questioned him. In a provocative poll, Kuwait's Al-Siyasa newspaper asked readers if Iranian workers should be replaced by Arabs. The answer was an overwhelming "yes."
Rallies in the Shiite holy cities of Qom and Mashhad on April 7 further rattled Gulf capitals. Iranian clerics and religious students staged solidarity protests with Bahrain’s Shiites. Broadcast live on Iranian state television, the protesters shouted, "Death to Zionist Saudis" and "The wicked Bahraini ruler is an enemy to Prophet [Mohammed]". The parliament also turned up the heat, challenging the Saudi Army to show its "prowess" against "crimes of the Zionist regime" rather than on defenseless Bahraini protesters.
Bahrain has long been a source of dispute between Shiite Iran and the Sunni-ruled Arab sheikhdoms. It was part of the Persian state for long stretches of history up until the early 19th century. In 1970, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi relinquished modern Iran’s claim on Bahrain, although since the 1979 revolution Iranian officials and media have made claims to it again, triggering temporary diplomatic spats.
Today, Bahrain's big brother is clearly Saudi Arabia. It shares an oil field with Riyadh; the proceeds go to Bahrain, which also receives extensive financial aid from Saudi Arabia. A causeway links the two countries like an umbilical cord.
Iraq has emerged as a wildcard in the Persian Gulf tensions. The majority Shiite population of Iraq is increasingly seen by Gulf Arab elites as dangerous to the Sunni Arab order in the Middle East. Iraq’s Shiite leaders, including former U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi, have reportedly been organizing large rallies to support Bahraini protestors. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr has also mobilized his followers for rallies. And the normally cautious Shiite clerical establishment of Najaf has spoken out against the violence in Bahrain.
The current tensions are not as bad as in the 1980s, when Ayatollah Khomeini refused to utter Saudi Arabia’s name, preferring to use the term "Hijaz" for a western Saudi province or refer to the “al Saud regime.” Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. underwrote Saddam Hussein's war efforts against Iran and the two sides came to physical blows during the Tanker Wars of the 1980s. (See chapter on Iran and the Gulf).
But efforts at rapprochement between 1989 and 2005, during presidencies of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohamed Khatami, have been severely damaged, injecting new uncertainties into a region already in flux. On April 11, Rafsanjani, who now chairs Iran's Expediency Council, described Bahrainis as the most oppressed people in the region. He also warned that repression by Arab regimes that kill their people “are committing political suicide.”
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.