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