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Why Iran is Pushing for a Shiite Victory in Bahrain

Why Iran is Pushing for a Shiite Victory in Bahrain

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The ongoing crisis in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority (70 percent) is challenging the Sunni royal family, has gradually come to reflect major processes of change that will reshape the political, politico-religious, and social reality in the Middle East.
The ongoing crisis in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority (70 percent) is challenging the Sunni royal family, has gradually come to reflect major processes of change that will reshape the political, politico-religious, and social reality in the Middle East.

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categoriesTypes, Research, Law
Published by: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on Jun 14, 2011
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06/14/2011

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 Vol. 11, No. 2 2 June 2011
Why Iran Is Pushing for a Shiite Victory in Bahrain
Michael Segall
 
Bahrain is the locus of a titanic struggle between regional powers representing polarextremes of Islam (Shiite Iran vs. Sunni Saudi Arabia), and
international powers’
economic and geo-strategic interests.
 
Washington has been regarded as Bahrain’s main ally. The command of the U.S. Fifth
Fleet, operating in the Persian Gulf as a counterweight to Iran, is located in Bahrain. YetWashington finds it difficult to formulate a consistent policy toward the protest there.
 
Bahrain is now at one of the most sensitive points in its history: it is truly in the Iranian
lion’s maw, still hosts the main naval base of the American fleet in the Gulf region, and
is a microcosm of the current struggle between the old and the new in the Middle East.
 
Iran has claimed sovereignty over Bahrain, maintaining that Bahrain formerly
constituted Iran’s fourteenth province. Iran is acting vigorously in Bahrain to overthrow
the regime through planting clandestine cells and organizing the Shiite population forprotests, and is being aided by Lebanese Hizbullah.
 
The battle in Bahrain has not yet concluded. Iran seeks to use the kingdom as aspringboard for continued influence and, given U.S. and Western indecisiveness, SaudiArabia finds itself almost alone in confronting Iran.
 
 
2
The Special Case of Bahrain
The ongoing crisis in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority (70 percent) is challenging the Sunniroyal family, has gradually come to reflect major processes of change that will reshape thepolitical, politico-religious, and social reality in the Middle East. These processes will alsoredefine the relationship between the region and the United States in particular and the Westin general, as well as the tension-laden relationship between Sunnis and Shiites.At first glance, Bahrain may appear merely another arena where the popular protest sweepingthe Arab world has spilled over. A closer look will reveal, however, that Bahrain constitutes aunique case, one that is likely to appreciably influence the change processes in the Middle East.
It signifies, perhaps similar to Iraq, “the sum of all fears” and mirrors the weaknesses of the
Arab and Western worlds in the face of the Iranian buildup and power projection.At the same time, the Bahraini case highlights the internal disputes within the Shiitesthemselves regarding links with Iran and Lebanese Hizbullah. A majority of Shiites remainconflicted over the source of religious authority (Khamenei of Iran or Sistani of Iraq), whileethnic and religious rivalries
 –
Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shiite
 –
continue. Bahrain is the locus of a titanic struggle between regional powers representing polar extremes of Islam (Shiite Iran vs.Sunni Saudi Arabia), and international powers (struggling to keep up with the dramatic changessweeping the region).The process of stabilizing Iraq, with its difficult but encouraging experience with democracysince the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, has also paved the way (more than the socialnetworks) for the current wave of protests in the Arab world, which is (adversely) influenced byevents in Bahrain. The reactions in Iraq still clearly reflect the ethnic-religious fault line: theShiites support the protest of their Bahraini brothers, while the Sunnis back the external (Saudi)involvement and the continued rule of the Sunni royal family.An additional major factor in the Bahraini imbroglio is the United States. Washington finds itdifficult to for
mulate a consistent policy toward the protest there, given Bahrain’s centrality in
terms of future measures against Iran. Washington has been regarded, at least up to the
present, as the kingdom’s main ally. The command of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, operating i
n thePersian Gulf as a counterweight and deterrent to an Iran that maintains a prominent presencein those waters, is located in Bahrain, and indeed the United States has recently beefed up itspresence in the kingdom. At the same time, the Iranian propaganda machine is takingadvantage of the undecided and hesitant American policy toward the Bahrain Shiite protests.
A Major Conflict Arena
Bahrain is, then, gradually becoming a major irritant and conflict arena in the Persian Gulf between the two regional powers. (Shiite) Iran views itself as the representative of what itdefines as the new order, soon to be constructed on the ruins of the American/Western old
 
 
3order and the Arab regimes supported by it. Iran skillfully exploits the weaknesses and divisionsamong the Arab states and their primary preoccupation with preserving their own stability anddiscerning the U.S. position toward them, while seeking to strengthen its own involvement. Onthe other side, (Sunni) Saudi Arabia is fighting a desperate rearguard battle to salvage
something of the old order that is collapsing at its feet. This accounts for Iran’s major efforts
within the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and other inter-Islamic forums toshowcase the Bahraini protesters and the obliviousness of the Western and Sunni world to theirentreaties and plight.The entry of the Saudi forces as part of the Peninsula Shield Force, in the framework of thedefense agreements between the Gulf states and Bahrain, has advanced the Saudi front linewith Iran, added new content to the historic rivalry between the two countries, and sparked ahigh-intensity renewal of the propaganda war and tension between the two aspirants forleadership of the Muslim world. With Bahrain bordering Saudi Arabia, should the former fall tothe Shiites
 –
an outcome that Iran is working for more than ever
 –
it will give Tehran directaccess to the very heart of the Sunni world. That is precisely why the Gulf Cooperation Council(GCC) sent the Peninsula Shield Force to h
elp Bahrain protect “vital installations and interests,”
and also proposed at its last meeting to admit the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco to theCouncil and broaden the front against Iran.
Choose Your Religious Authority
The entry of Saudi forces (other GCC states also contributed soldiers) played into the hands of Iran and the Bahraini opposition, which contended that the Kingdom of Bahrain is de facto aSaudi satellite. The gradual transition of the Bahraini opposition from the quiet protest (whichdid not lead to tangible reforms) characteristic of its approach for years to a violent struggle,stimulated by Iran and assisted by Lebanese Hizbullah, reinforced the Shiite elements in Bahrainthat support the Iranian Shiite model
 –
that is, the rule of the religious Jurisprudence (
Velayat-e-faqih
), currently Ayatollah Khamenei. Conversely, this transition weakens the Shiite elementsthat support the quietist Shiite model, which is manifested at present in Iraqi governance andwhose principal representative is Grand Ayatollah Sistani; even some of the Shiite elements inLebanon (such as Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah before his death) support this model.Iran, for its part, is worried about the large-scale support that Sistani is gradually accumulatingamong the Shiites in Bahrain and among other Shiite concentrations in the Gulf (and inLebanon, and even in Iran itself). Thus Iran is trying to bolster those Shiite elements that viewthe Iranian leader as a source of religious emulation and to foster among the Bahraini Shiites(some of whom are of Arab and some of Persian origin) a unique Shiite identity that is orientedto the Iranian leader. Tehran provides generous financial support to the Bahraini Shiites, assiststheir organizations, and, with the help of Hizbullah, even supplies some of them with weaponry.Over the past few months the tensions accompanying Iranian-Bahraini relations, which have
existed since the kingdom’s establishment in the 1970s, have increased. The background is the

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