Monday, April 25, 2011

Bahrain in the shadow of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States

Written by: Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

There are disturbing accounts from major human rights organizations about abuses in Bahrain and the systematic state violence that has been unleashed on the opposition movement against the monarchy of the Al-Khalifa family.And yet Bahrain has not become the story because the movement for social justice, government accountability and independence is being violently suppressed, but because of wider strategic calculations that bind the fate of the island to the future of regional politics.

There are at least three strategic issues at stake when it comes to the political present and future of the country. First, Bahrain hosts a major naval base for the U.S. fifth fleet, and the ruling Al-Khalifa family has been a trusted ally of the United States for several decades. Yet Bahrain's rulers have not taken advantage of the security guarantees provided by successive U.S. governments in order to open up the political system or to sponsor a rather more equitable social and economic order.According to the constitution of Bahrain the king appoints all members of the upper house of the parliament, while the lower house was voted into office in 2010.

In the absence of a strong legitimacy of the state, systematic violence has functioned as a short cut to safeguard the regime.But this has not lead to real political representation of the majority Shia population or to a system of wealth distribution that is equitable. In fact, Bahrain continues to be one of the few hereditary monarchies of the world.In the absence of a strong legitimacy of the state, systematic violence has functioned as a short cut to safeguard the regime. Hence, the current crackdown, which has not drawn much criticism from the United States and the European Union, who were/are by far louder about the situation in Libya (and indeed about anything that happens in Iran).

The second strategic factor is the involvement of Saudi Arabia. After Yemen, Bahrain is the second country in which the Saudis have intervened militarily in support of long-standing allies battling restive societies. In Bahrain, military forces dispatched from Saudi Arabia have helped suppress the protest, and for pragmatic reasons: From the perspective of the Saudi state, a Shia-dominated Bahrain could be a potential ally of Iran, and the downfall of a tribal monarchy that rests on a comparably absolute mandate to rule could trigger a domino effect throughout the Arabian peninsula. After all, demonstrators in both Saudi and Bahrain have made it clear that political power should be shared, that hoarding the political process and the wealth of their countries around a family clique is not acceptable anymore.

The Saudi suspicion toward Iranian motives brings us to the third strategic factor. Ultimately, all major protests by Shia in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, both during the rule of the Shah and even more so after the Islamic revolution of 1979, have been blamed in one way or another on Iran. It is true that Iran has a vested interest in what is happening in Bahrain and that the country has a degree of cultural and political influence throughout the wider Persian Gulf area. But in Bahrain, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the demonstrations are not driven by sectarian motives. The revolts are primarily about government accountability, social justice and human rights.

These demands cross religious, ethnic, tribal and class lines. The sectarian card was played by the hardliners in the Al-Khalifa family in order to divert attention away from the demands of the people by blaming Iran for the uprising.And yet, none of the movements in the region have been about Iran. The model of an "Islamic Republic" is very unique to the modern history of the country and not really transferable to anywhere else, certainly not in the same format.

Despite that, the hidden hand of Tehran is seen to be meddling everywhere, not only from the perspective of the Saudis but also from the point of view of the Obama administration and its advisors.Thus, it is one of the many ironies of the international politics of the region that both Washington and Tehran have not managed to create channels of communication to mitigate regional crises.If Iran is indeed a regional superpower, is it not impossible to marginalize it? If Iran has so much ideational power in the wider Arab and Islamic world, would it not be in the interest of all stakeholders to forge a security architecture for the region that would include such a central country?

Is it not irrational and ultimately impossible to keep Iran out of what is happening in the area? Is it not time for a sustained period of diplomatic detente? Shouldn't we finally strive for peace in Western Asia? Isn't peace and real security what the increasingly vocal civil societies are calling for? To my mind, addressing these questions with a strategic understanding of the geopolitical realities of the greater West Asian area is likely to yield better policy, both with regard to Bahrain and beyond. To that end, we need many more unclenched fists.
*Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is University Lecturer in Comparative and International Politics at SOAS, University of London
Disclaimer: www.IranDiplomacyWatch.com does not necessarily approve of views expressed by external authors in its reprinted pieces.

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