Iran Warns Gulf on Bahrain

Semira N. Nikou

      After weeks of relative silence, Iran has become increasingly outspoken about Bahrain’s political crisis since Saudi Arabia deployed troops to back up the beleaguered monarchy on March 14.
      Iran has long had political, strategic and religious interests in Bahrain, more so than any other Gulf sheikhdom. The island nation was sporadically part of Persia as far back as the sixth century B.C. and, most recently, was part of Iran’s Safavid Empire in the18th century. The al Khalifa royal family became rulers of Bahrain in 1820 and the kingdom became a British protectorate in 1861.
      Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi ultimately gave up Iran’s historic claim to Bahrain in 1970, shortly before the island nation gained independence from Britain in 1971. But roughly 70 percent of Bahrain’s population is Shiite, which is also Iran’s state religion.  In 1981, Bahrain uncovered a nascent coup plot which it linked to Iran and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which was based in Iran. On March 20, 2011, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa said that Bahrain had foiled an "external plot" against Bahrain and other Gulf emirates that had been in progress for three decades.  
      From 1989 to 2005, Iranian Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami worked to improve relations with the Gulf states, including Bahrain. But under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005--), a number of Iranian officials provocatively have laid claims to the kingdom, heightening regional tensions.
      In 2007, Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and editor of the conservative daily Kayhan, said that the “province” of Bahrain needed to be reunified with its “motherland,” meaning Iran. Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a former parliamentary speaker and adviser to the supreme leader, also said in 2009 that "Bahrain was the fourteenth province of Iran until 1970.” Despite the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s claim that the media had misinterpreted the statements, Bahrain suspended negotiations over a gas deal that would have enabled Iran to export one billion cubic feet of natural gas to Bahrain per day.
      Bahrain and its Arab allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially Saudi Arabia, harbor deep suspicions about Iran’s long-term intentions. Last week, Bahrain expelled Iran's charge d'affairs; Iran then expelled a Bahraini diplomat.
      The looming question in the Gulf is whether Bahrain’s crisis will evolve into of a proxy showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Compounding the tension are U.S. interests. Manama is the headquarters for the of U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
      Here are some recent statements by Iranian officials:
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
      "Of course, bitter events which take place against the people in certain countries - against the dear people of Bahrain, in Yemen and in Libya - do not make our New Year pleasant and makes one not fully enjoy it. We hope that God almighty provides them with hasty relief and punishes the enemies of the nations."
      "We don't distinguish between Gaza, Palestine, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. We have supported Palestine for 32 years, and they are not Shiites. It is not an issue of Shiites and Sunnis... It is the protest of a nation against oppression."
      “[Iran] supports all the popular movements which are under the slogan of Islam and (seeking) freedom." New Year (Nowrouz) speech on March 21, 2011
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
      "This [Saudi] military invasion was a foul and doomed experience. Regional nations hold the U.S. government accountable for such a heinous behavior."
      "I caution those who have deployed military forces in Bahrain to take lessons from the fate of those rulers of the region who invaded their neighboring countries in the past.”
      "Learn from the fate of Saddam Hussein [who also used his military to] confront the people of a neighboring country." March 16, 2011
Ali Akbar Salehi, Foreign Minister
      "How can one accept that a government has proceeded to invite foreign military forces for the crackdown of its own citizens?" March 15, 2011, in a letter to the United Nations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Arab League
      “We expect the Bahraini government to deal with people’s demands prudently and respect people’s right to pursue their demands through peaceful means.” March 13, 2011
Ramin Mehmanparast, Foreign Ministry spokesman
      "After the illogical and incomprehensible actions of the Bahrain government, especially expelling one of our diplomats, as a reprisal the attaché at Bahrain's embassy has been summoned and told that one of the embassy's diplomats must leave Iran."
      "Responding to the legitimate demands of the population guarantees the stability and permanence of governments, while the repression of peaceful protests and illogical actions only aggravate the crisis and deepen wounds.” March 20, 2011  “The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue.”
      “People have some legitimate demands and they are expressing them peacefully…It should not be responded to violently.” March 15, 2011
Ahmad Vahidi, defense minister
      “[The decision to send foreign forces to Bahrain was a] strategic, political, and national mistake...that disrupts the region's security and stability...."  If these "unlawful acts become normalized, the region will turn into a center of hostility, conflict, and incendiaries, the flames of which may extend to the region's nations." March 16, 2011
Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament
      "The entering of foreign forces into Bahrain will complicate the situation in the region and make it difficult to find a solution to the ongoing crisis in the country."
      “It is crystal clear that this aggressive action was carried out with the support of  the United States and in the wake of Gates' trip to the country, and regional nations reserve the right to hold the United States accountable for any violence or massacre committed [ in their countries ] to this moment.” March 15, 2011
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Foreign Ministry director-general for Persian Gulf and Middle East affairs
      "The peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain are among the domestic issues of this country, and creating an atmosphere of fear and using other countries' military forces to oppress these demands is not the solution.”
      "It is expected that the demands of the Muslim people of Bahrain ... be seriously considered by the authorities and that they prevent the situation from becoming more complex by making right decisions and not allowing foreign interferences in Bahrain." March 14, 2011, interview with Fars News Agency
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the Guardian Council
       "Brothers and sisters [in Bahrain] resist against the enemy until you die or win." March 18, 2011
Read Semira Nikou's chapter on Iran's subsidies conundrum in “The Iran Primer”

Semira N. Nikou works for the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace