by Brett Davis. Brett Davis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He also runs the blog ClearedHot and occasionally navigates Twitter. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Northeastern University. His opinions are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.
News outlets and commentators were abuzz regarding combat strategy against the Islamic State (IS) and the involved Middle East players. Analysis revolves around the United States, Iran, Syria, the Europeans and others and their role in defeating IS. To the south, traditional Sunni power Saudi Arabia recently held discussions with their Shiite foil, Iran, regarding regional security cooperation. You heard right: the Middle East’s two biggest rivals want to work together in a limited capacity. The Middle East’s focus has been on the battle against IS; however, a Saudi-Iranian détente could have an effect on the turbulent situation in Bahrain.
A History of Influence
Separated by less than 200 miles of water, Bahrain and Iran have been entangled since the former’s independence in 1971. With a Shiite population of roughly 75%, Bahrain has long been ruled by the Khalifa dynasty – Sunnis who represent a definite minority among Bahrain’s Muslim population. With Bahrain’s oil subsidies dried up by the late 1970’s and its Shiite population living in squalor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini selected Bahrain as one of the first targets for its exported Islamic revolution.
Khomeini’s forces backed Bahrain’s Shiite revolutionaries as they attempted a coup in 1981, embedding indefinite suspicion in the minds of the ruling Khalifas regarding Bahraini Shiites and their supposed revolutionary backers. As a result, discrimination against Bahraini Shiites is commonplace, and since the suspension of the parliament in the mid 1970s, representation of Shiites at the national level, representing Shiite interests, is non-existent.
Saudi and Iranian Hands in the Pot
Such conditions make Bahrain ripe for discontent and protest. As a participant in the 2011 Arab Spring revolts, Bahraini Shiites declared a “Day of Rage” to protest their mistreatment and demand equal representation in the eyes of the law. In an act of solidarity to their monarchical compatriots, the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent reserve troops to the island to bolster the Bahrain Security Forces and maintain order and security in the kingdom. A National Dialogue was set up in order to create understanding between the government and protesters, with hopes that grievances would be solved and Shiites would gain some form of equality in Bahrain, but the talks have gone nowhere.
Throughout the 2011 uprising and in the years since, the Bahraini government played the Iran card with reckless abandon. This tactic achieves several goals. Labeling Bahraini Shiites as Iranian proxies ensures support from the aforementioned Gulf monarchies, as they assuredly want to preserve the stability a long-term Sunni monarchy in the region provides. Also, it ensures support from one of the island’s biggest clients: the U.S. government. Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, responsible for maritime security in the Gulf region and a longtime adversary of Iran and its military. Claiming Iranian involvement in their native insurgency ensures American support for the regime, as they also desire stability in a country housing thousands of service members and their families. Last but not least, blaming Iran takes pressure off the Bahraini government. Using Iran as a scapegoat takes the spotlight off the government’s longtime treatment of Shiites and their heavy-handed response to the protests, which left dozens dead and hundreds more behind bars for dubious reasons.
Accusing Iran of meddling in the affairs of other Middle Eastern countries is hardly without reason. Iran has been trying to export the Islamic Revolution for 30 years, and their botched coup in Bahrain is reason enough for mistrust in the regime. Add that to decades of involvement in Lebanon via their proxy Hezbollah, and their support for the Assad regime during the Syria crisis, and it’s easy to see why Iran is such an easy target, especially in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia also has a vested interest in spreading influence throughout the region. They have always viewed Iran as a rival for influence, especially in states with large Shiite populations – hence Saudi involvement in Bahrain. They have also interfered regularly in Yemen, and tend to force influence in order to maintain the status quo and block any governmental change that is challenging to their regional hegemony.
Détente and Dialogue
Once more, Iraq has become a Middle Eastern battleground. Saudi Arabia and other moderate Sunni states oppose IS, as does Iran, backing their Shiite neighbors against radical Sunnis. In a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves fighting the same battle. In that light, Iran’s foreign minister arrived in Riyadh for meetings with his Arab counterpart on regional cooperation late August. The consequences of cooperation between these two states could be monumental, especially for Bahrain.
As I’ve outlined above, Saudi Arabia and Iran are both vying for influence in Bahrain and backing parties on either side of the conflict. The National Dialogue, formed following the uprisings, is the government’s attempt to reach common ground with the opposition regarding their claims and grievances. The Dialogue, however, has been less than productive. In its first year, the Dialogue moved slowly, with no agreements reached. At the beginning of this year, and the government was criticized for basing discussions on a Sunni-Shiite divide, when opposition and outside entities claimed the discussions were based on grievances of the people with the regime.
The government’s claim they are facing a Sunni-Shiite divide is a perfect example of Saudi-Iranian influence on the process. Multiple discussions within the dialogue have focused on Iranian influence on the opposition, despite a glaring lack of evidence. A Saudi-Iranian détente is the perfect opportunity to rid the Dialogue of talks of Iranian and Saudi influence in the process and focus on the issues at hand. With an agreement in place on Bahrain, the talks will no longer be marred by suspicion of outside actors and the government will be forced to negotiate from a place of legitimate grievances, not blaming stalled negotiations on a nonexistent Iranian invisible hand.
Bahrain has dealt with outside influences on its internal politics for years, and it came to a head in 2011. Now, with the future and stability of the country at stake, the government continues to sing the same old song about Iranian influence. A Saudi-Iranian détente is the perfect opportunity to jump start the Dialogue and move forward with real reform.