Iran’s Problem with Baharain

 

 

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I’ve posted on this blog posts on Iran’s relations with its fellow gulf countries before (“Trouble brewing in the Gulf, “With friends like these 3“, “Iran’s diplomatic duality in the Gulf“, “With friends like these 1“.

This week, Bahrain is taking focus again in that area and once again, it has to do with Iran’s efforts at subversion in the area. On the 28th of April, a Bahraini court sentenced 12 men to a life sentence in prison for spying. The Judges ruled that the men received training from the IRGC in Iran and that they also possessed weapons and explosives.

Furthermore, an article in The Express Tribune reported that: “Bahrain accuses Iran of fueling unrest in the country since a 2011 uprising led by the Shi’ite Muslim community demanding reforms and more share in running the kingdom ruled by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa dynasty”. This is quite the hefty accusation and it followed similar accusations last year regarding the IRGC setting up a terrorist cell that planned to attack its airport and government buildings.

The response from Tehran was as expected: It denied the allegations, but defended the cause of the Shi’ite opposition. The row between the two countries started a few days before, when the Bahraini Authorities expelled Iraq Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s representative, Hussein al-Najati, in the latest sign of tension with the Shia majority in the Persian Gulf country. “We strongly condemn (such) measures by the al-Khalifa and announce that we will never leave the Bahraini people alone,” said the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani in a speech in Qom, and added that this is a sign of the Al Khalifa’s fall.

The troubles in Bahrain did not go unnoticed by its neighbor and Iran’s archrival, Saudi Arabia: “Our regional security requires that we, as a Gulf grouping, work to create a real balance of forces with it, including in nuclear knowhow, and to be ready for any possibility in relation to the Iranian nuclear file” said  former Saudi intelligence director Prince Turk Al Faisal to the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies.

So while Iran is succeeding in getting closer to the West, its neighbors are getting wearier of its continued efforts to stir up a Shia opposition from within. This might seem very distant and irrelevant to readers from Europe and America but Iran’s world view is certainly not limited to its neighbors.

Trouble Brewing in the Gulf

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The Gulf as a Microcosm

As Iranian diplomats battle their way into a nuclear agreement in Vienna, trouble is, once again, brewing much closer to home: lines are being drawn in the oil-soaked sands and the Gulf states are choosing sides.

And although this might seem far away and irrelevant for most people, this conflict is not going to be contained within the Gulf – in fact, it is being played out in countries as far away as Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, India and the US. Because what happens in the Gulf definitely doesn’t stay there.

The Red Corner: Iran-Oman-Qatar

Oman is a natural partner of Iran and has been so since the Islamic revolution. The ties are strong and are fuelled by their control of the Straits of Hormuz as well as money – a lot of money. Last year, Iran inked an agreement with Oman to export gas and Iran is setting up a deal with Oman and India for an underwater pipeline bypassing the current land route through Pakistan. Since relations between Iran and Pakistan are on the rocks right now, such a pipeline would be a double blessing for Iran.

Qatar was not always pro-Iran and, in fact, was at odds with Iran as far as Syria is concerned by backing the rebels (to the tune of 1-3 Billion dollars) as befitted the will of the country’s ex-monarch – Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. But since the crown-prince of Qatar, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is an avid supporter of Assad, sentiments have changed up to the point where Qatar has decided to take a step back from the conflict in Syria and actually back Iran. In the meantime, Qatar and Iran are planning to establish a “Joint Free Trade Zone” which is sure to sweeten the relations between both countries.

The Green Corner: Saudi Arabia-Bahrain-UAE

The nuclear negotiations never did not sit well with Riyadh quite simply because the Saudis do not believe Tehran’s claims of a peaceful nuclear program. Consequently, the Saudis believe that the nuclear deal was a green light for them to buy a nuclear bomb from none other than…Pakistan.

The growing conflict between Tehran and Riyadh is not contained in the Gulf but is being battled out in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq through proxy-terrorist groups being financed by both sides. The Saudi backing of Al-Qaeda troops against Iranian-backed Hezbollah has resulted in an upsurge of terrorism in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq at the expense of civilians and Iranian diplomats caught in the crossfire.

This conflict is about money as well – Iran is trying to mobilize Iraq to form a front against Saudi Arabia’s control of OPEC, a move which is certain to add fuel to an already growing explosion in the making.

The Saudis are visibly upset with Qatar’s siding with Iran in this political tug of war, recalling its ambassador a week ago. True, relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been on the rocks for a while (since Qatar openly backed the Muslim Brotherhood) but the context of their relations is definitely Iran.

And then, of course, there is Bahrain which is, with the UAE, a natural ally of Saudi Arabia and a victim of Iranian attempts at subversion and terrorism. Bahrain never supported Iran and will definitely not do so in the future.

The Future of the Gulf

Iran has never hid its aspirations to become a leader in its neighborhood. After decades of sanctions and animosity with the West which definitely benefitted the Saudis, its rapprochement through a nuclear deal has raised many questions and anger levels between the neighboring countries. Their calls for diplomacy with Saudi Arabia by Iran are repeated in the same breath as accusations and there seems to be no end in sight.

One thing is certain – this won’t be a clean fight: Tehran will use all its resources to topple the Saudis balancing grip and judging from the past, be prepared to read about exposed spy rings, IRGC/Qods/Hezbollah operatives, shipment of munitions etc…

With Friends Like These – Iranian ME Diplomacy (part 3)

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Bahrain Needs “Concrete Steps”

Following the Geneva deal in November, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif embarked on his “charm offensive” road trip in the region. The tour to Kuwait, Oman and Qatar finally included the UAE (“what unites us is far greater than our minor differences“) but significantly excluded Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa admitted on December 7th that, although there has been a “change in Iranian language”, there still is no “clear change of policy”. He added that Bahrain’s fears of Iranian “interferences with internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups” in the Gulf countries are alive and that he is still waiting for “concrete steps” by Tehran to prove that the change in diplomacy is real.

Within three weeks, Al Khalifa witnessed concrete steps – in the opposite direction: Bahraini authorities foiled Iranian-backed attempts of terror and subversion after discovering caches of explosives (“50 Iranian-made hand bombs” and “295 commercial detonators on which was written ‘made in Syria'”) and arresting 13 people in the process.

Riyadh Ready to Buy a Bomb

Saudi Arabia adopted a much more direct approach:

  • Disillusioned by the nuclear deal which the Saudis felt was inadequate to force Tehran’s program to remain peaceful, they renewed their search to buy their own nuclear bomb from Pakistan. Worried about Iran getting a bomb? Now, worry about two warring neighbors with nuclear bombs.
  • Disillusioned by the UN’s lack of control in Syria and Iran, the Saudis declined a seat in the UN Security Council and are suspected of supporting Al Qaeda’s operations in Syria and Lebanon to counter Hezbollah and Iran – including bombing the Iranian embassy in Beirut.

 Beyond The Gulf…

Apropos: Remember the retaliating bombing by the Hezbollah in Beirut last week that killed former Finance Minister Mohamad Chatah, a strong critic of Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and in Syria? Ironically (or not), he died only a week after sending an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani requesting him to stop Iranian interference, directly or through Hezbollah, in Lebanon and in Syria.

Anyway: like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Egypt suffered in the past from Iranian-backed spy rings and is fearful of an Islamic Revolution marshaled by Tehran.

Perhaps that’s why Egypt’s Tourist Minister closed Egypt’s gates to Iranian tourists for “reasons related to national security” and cancelled all flights to and from Tehran.

The Egyptians must know what they’re doing on this.

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