Influential countries in the region such as the Islamic Republic of Iran have had specific attitudes regarding the significant developments in Arab countries, starting from North African countries through those spanning the Middle East. Influential countries seek to achieve their strategic goals through the use of tools and strategies they possess.
Since the start of the Arab Spring, the Islamic Republic, which is currently one of the most influential countries in the region, has adopted an outspoken position towards the developments in the Middle East. Iran also supported movements demanding freedom because it considered it an Islamic awakening, and the developments in the Syrian arena are not the only ones supported by Iran. The Islamic Republic frankly sees that the United States and its allies, including old allies in the region sided with the US-submissive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain through the uprisings experienced by those countries. Iran also believes that America and countries opposing Tehran fought a battle against the Syrian regime in order to exert pressure on Iran.
2.Dispute between Iran and the Gulf countries
Following the United Arab Emirates’ allegations on the ownership of the islands of Great Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa, the issues of Bahrain and Yemen, recently, are the most prominent points of contention between Iran and its neighbors from the southern side of the Persian Gulf. But these differences are just a fraction of the dispute between conventional rival countries in the region. In conjunction with the Islamic Revolution, Arab countries in the region accuse Iran of trying to export the revolution because they fear that the revolution which was able to overthrow one of the most competent US allies may bring them a similar fate to the Shah’s regime. Arab countries in the region feared the widening of the movement calling for change, which began inside Iran’s territories. These countries accused Iran of exporting the revolution on one hand and suppressed the opposition inside their countries on the other hand. Moreover, the Iraqi regime practiced the most severe measures against its opponents where it killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr and his sister together with hundreds of Al-Sadr’s loyalists.
Several Arab countries that have accused Iran of exporting the revolution have supported Saddam Hussein during his war against Iran, provided financial support for Iraq, and proceeded to provide him with weapons.
Both the US occupation of Iraq and the Arab Spring have contributed in deepening the old differences between the two sides of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia and its allies gave a sectarian character to their political differences with Iran in order to mobilize the public sentiment of Arab citizens which increasingly complicated the situation. Also, some countries in the region did not only consider Iran as its rival but also as an ideological threat and a threat to their long-term interests. Therefore, these countries are trying to convey a sectarian character to the political rivalry with Iran, which led to a complication in regional competition and developments.
3.Bahrain’s case and the need for diagnosis
Before turning to the Iranian stance on Bahraini developments, some of the facts about the developments in Bahrain should be taken into account. The most important causes for the unrest in Bahrain are summed up as follows: the Sunni minority rule over the Shiite majority, depriving the majority from participating in the decision-making process in the country, changing demographics in favor of the Sunni minority, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and inequality in the distribution of wealth.
In order to initiate resolution to the crisis in Bahrain, it is important to identify the causes and gain the support of the majority of the people, where analyses made by the regime and its Saudi Arabian ally through accusations to Iran were intended to cover up the bitter realities in the country.
The rule of Al Khalifa in Bahrain is characterized by security and economic subservience to Saudi Arabia, as relations between the two ruling families have contributed to the deepening and strengthening of this dependency. We must pay attention to the history of unrest in Bahrain back in the period preceding the Arab Spring, where the government suppressed the protests that took place in the nineties.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain may seek to show that the people’s movement in Bahrain is quite different from the Arab Spring, and that it is affiliated to Iran through giving it a sectarian nature.
The second reason, which causes Saudi Arabia to show utmost reservation regarding the events in Bahrain lies in the bonds of kinship woven between clans in Bahrain and clans belonging to the Shiite sect in the provinces Al Ahsa and Al Qatif in Saudi Arabia, as the developments that were experienced by Shiite areas in one country will affect their counterparts in the other country. Consequently, the reasons for the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain seem clear.
4.Iran’s position on the developments in Bahrain
Bahrain’s case is without doubt one of the most complex issues to Iranian foreign policy and requires precise attention.
First, Bahrain was previously subject to the Iranian government and gained its independence from Iran through a referendum conducted by the United Nations. Second, the majority of the Bahraini people belong to the Shiite sect, and the Al Khalifa regime believes that Shiites are influenced by Iran. Bahrain is also a member of the Cooperation Council for the Persian Gulf countries, and that Iran’s stance on developments in Bahrain would aggravate the responses of all members of the GCC.
On the other hand, political leaders in Iran are subjected to pressure from the public in order to pay attention to current events in Bahrain. The importance of Bahrain to the Iranians is not only limited to Iran’s official policy, but also the Iranian public opinion exerts pressure on the government to take a standpoint regarding Bahrain. The reason for the public pressure on the government is the kinship between Iran and the Bahraini people. I believe the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken limited action regarding Bahrain’s case, one that is less than those of Western countries for the reasons mentioned.
Many Western countries and even allies of Al Khalifa have issued many condemnation statements about Bahrain. The British House of Commons, European Parliament, the US Congress and the US Senate have issued resolutions against the Al Khalifa regime during the past two years. More than a hundred human rights organization have also issued condemnation statements regarding various events in Bahrain. The Islamic Republic of Iran, on the other hand, has not issued any statement or decision on any level whether through its government, non-governmental, or parliamentary institutions on the crisis in Bahrain.
In spite of the allegations issued by the Al Khalifa regime and Saudi Arabia against Iran, Iran’s position on the developments in Bahrain did not exceed a statement issued by the Iranian Foreign Ministry and a presentation of the demands of the Bahraini protesters in international circles. The report issued by Mr. Cherif Bassiouni, Chairman of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, on the unrest in the country considered Iran’s interference in the developments in Bahrain incorrect. The report actually denied Saudi and Bahraini allegations about Iranian interference in Bahrain’s affairs.
The Iranian stance on developments in Bahrain is characterized with understanding regarding this sensitive issue, and it is aware of the possibility of exploiting this position by some parties. This position regarding Bahrain is based on respect to the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Bahrain while it constantly reminds the Bahraini government of ignoring the right of the majority and the denial of their participation in the decision-making process.
In conjunction with the start of the uprising in Bahrain, the Iranian government has taken a number of measures, namely:
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Switzerland, and expressed its deep concern about the military presence of some countries in Bahrain. The Iranian Foreign Ministry also sent letters to the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, and Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa, and expressed Iran’s concern about the military presence of some countries in Bahrain. Various institutions and personalities from Iran have condemned the situation in Bahrain. The state-run television and other television channels broadcasting from overseas including channels like Al Alam and Press TV made a concerted effort to cover the prevailing circumstances in Bahrain, leaving a significant impact on regional and global public opinion. On the other hand, the Iranian stance has reached an unprecedented level to the extent that the Bahraini monarch requested Iran’s mediation between the government and the opposition. Iran’s former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has revealed this royal request during a joint press conference with his Jordanian counterpart in the Jordanian capital.
Despite the fact that the Bahraini government denied the validity of the statements made by Iran’s former Foreign Minister, the statements made by Salehi reveal that officials in Bahrain acknowledge the fact that Iran does not to interfere in Bahrain’s issues and appeal to Iran to act as mediators between the government and the opposition in Bahrain.
Before addressing the points of contention between Iran and Arab countries, it should be noted that many of the Arab Spring countries will need many years in order to stabilize and return to the previous state.
Just as the Saudi proceeded to militarily occupy Bahrain in order to preserve the unison of its regime, the Iranian and Saudi Arabia attitudes during the last two years indicate that the Saudi national security depends on Bahrain’s stability and that Iran considers the stability in Syria part of its national security. It can be said that both Iran and Saudi Arabia, through their approach with the Syrian and Bahraini issues, seek to increase their relative stability, internal consistency, and their status in the region. Despite the fact that the Iranian position towards the Bahraini people are aimed at the realization of peoples rights and is limited to provide political and moral support, Saudi Arabia considers Iran’s approach in dealing with the Bahraini issue as offensive.
The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the hostile policies adopted by Saudi Arabia against Syria, beginning with its support to the opposition and ending up by sending weapons, threaten national security and are considered offensive measures. Syria and Bahrain, in fact, became a common arena for strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. From this perspective, certain positions taken by officials about linking the future of Syria to the issue of Bahrain can be explained.
The relations between Iran and Arab countries in fact reflect the overlap between different levels: resources, the concern of insecurity, and geopolitical developments. Recent developments in Bahrain and Syria will heavily affect Iran’s political future and its international stature. The future political game in the Middle East is not only based on ideologies, but rather aims to establish the areas of influence and define the roles of these countries.