Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Iran, Saudi Arabia and popular uprising in Bahrain

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has issued a report today on the ongoing political crisis in Bahrain in which it raises serious alarm on the consequences of the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain and describes concerns over Iran’s interference in Bahrain’s political developments as unfounded. The ICG report starts by noting that “Manama’s crackdown and Saudi Arabia’s military intervention are dangerous moves that could stamp out hopes for peaceful transition in Bahrain and turn a mass movement for democratic reform into an armed conflict, while regionalizing an internal political struggle. They could also exacerbate sectarian tensions not only in Bahrain or the {Persian} Gulf but across the region. Along with other member states of the {Persian} Gulf Cooperation Council (P-GCC), Saudi Arabia purportedly is responding to dual fears: that the takeover would be tantamount to an Iranian one. Both are largely unfounded. It also is concerned protests might inspire similar movements among its own Eastern Province Shiites, oblivious that its involvement is likelier to provoke than deter them. Bahrain’s brutal crackdown and Saudi interference fan flames both want to extinguish”.

The ICG report states that Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain has exacerbated the political situation in that country and has achieved precisely the opposite of what it intended. It reads “Saudi Arabia’s intervention led leaders of Bahrain’s largest opposition group, al-Wifaq, to state that dialogue would not be possible as long as foreign forces remain on national soil. It prompted an immediate response from Iran, which called the intervention an unacceptable interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs. It put Bahrain’s U.S. ally in an awkward position, prompting the secretary of state to characterize the developments as “alarming”. It almost certainly further alienated Bahrain’s Shiite majority – with many Shiite officials resigning in protest – and, if anything, increased their sympathy for Tehran. It arguably inflamed Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite population. In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the most senior Shiite religious authority, gave his support to peaceful protest in Bahrain, triggering Shiite demonstrations in solidarity with their Bahraini brethren there, in Kuwait and indeed in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which has a significant Shiite population. In short, the intervention likely achieved precisely the opposite of what it intended”.

The ICG report also rejects the allegations that Iran has been behind political unrests in Bahrain by noting that “Nor has any direct Iranian involvement in the current Bahraini uprising so far been established, beyond the extended media coverage given in Iran to the protests and Iranian officials’ public comments”. To resolve the current political crisis in Bahrain peacefully in the interest of the Bahraini people, the ICG report recommends that “Saudi Arabia and the other contributing {Persian} Gulf states should withdraw their security forces and equipment from the island. Protesters should continue to use peaceful means to express their grievances and demands while agreeing to negotiate with the regime”. As far as the US government is concerned, the ICG report recommends that the US “nonetheless should understand that repression in Bahrain will do neither it nor its allies any good in the longer term. Bahrain’s post-colonial history lends at least some hope to the possibility of dialogue and compromise, as despite its obvious problems the country has also known a degree of pluralism and a vibrant civil society. But the window of opportunity is fast closing”. To read the ICG’s full report, click here.


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