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Bahrain Crisis: Iran-Saudi Manoeuvres


By M Mahtab Alam Rizvi

15 March 2014

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has reached an alarming situation due to sectarian divide in the region. But sane counsel may prevail on both as they realise an armed intervention could prove disastrous for the two

The Arab uprising that began in 2011 has shaken the entire Persian Gulf region, with Bahrain bearing the brunt. There are/were two prime reasons for this: first, sectarian division in Bahrain; and second, the involvement of two major regional players — Iran and Saudi Arabia — in a form of proxy conflict on Bahraini soil. Although the majority of protesters belong to the Shia community, this was not initially a sectarian demonstration. Rather, it was motivated by calls for political and democratic reforms and the decentralisation of power from the Al-Khalifa family to the elected parliament.

Given the awkward nature of identity incongruence within Bahrain, it is argued that the kingdom witnesses grave internal-security challenges. Bahrain is a sectarian fault line between Sunnis and Shias, positioned within a few kilometres of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is a station where a confrontation between the two regional mighty rivals can happen, with overwhelming geopolitical consequences. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia realise the significance of Bahrain and conflict between the two for lasting influence on Bahrain has a long history.

Saudi Arabia and Iran exercise enormous influence in the West Asian region, with former being the de facto leader of the Sunni Arab world. Although Iran, a Persian-speaking Shia majority country, does not belong to the Arab world, but it champions the Palestinian cause that is very dear to the people of the Arab region. No doubt the vertical division between the Shias and the Sunnis in the Gulf region is receiving greater attention because of the heightening sectarian violence/politics in the region, particularly in Bahrain and Syria.

Saudi Reactions

The crisis in Bahrain has given key challenges to the regional powers, particularly in Saudi Arabia. First, any sectarian turmoil in neighbouring Bahrain has the potential to arouse the gripes of the Shia population in Saudi Arabia’s most significant strategic province in the east, where most of the Saudi oil wells exist. Second, with the urgent and most serious threat out of the way, Saudi Arabia has focused on its larger geopolitical goal of isolating Iran. From Day One, the Iranian bogeyman has been a major factor influencing Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other GCC states’ reactions to the unrest in the kingdom. Saudi’s foreign policy has always given utmost importance to the Gulf region with the purpose of growing Riyadh’s weight against the smaller neighbours. GCC countries in general and Saudi Arabia in particular are apprehensive that Iran may take the advantage of the situation and that is why Saudi Arabia has warned Iran for any intervention in Bahrain.

Iranian Response

While Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain is unquestionable, Iranian involvement too is undeniable. Even the Bahraini government has accused Iran of meddling in their domestic affairs. Though there is uncertainty as to what extent Iran was involved in the demonstrations across Bahrain, the reality of links between Bahraini Shia clerics and Tehran is noticeable. Sheikh Isa Ahmad Qassem, the spiritual leader of key opposition party Wafaq and the leader of Friday prayers at a mosque in the predominantly Shia-populated Diraz City, is an ardent follower of Khamenei, and is collecting taxes for the Supreme Leader, publicising his religious ideology, and motivating people to follow him rather than other sources of imitation. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also praised Qassem by hailing him as a “star in the sky” of Shi’ism.

Several Shia clerics wrote to Khamenei requesting him to support the Shia population of Bahrain when clashes erupted in the country. The letter was extensively published in the Iranian media, which also described that the influx of GCC and Saudi troops as an invasion. The statements of the Bahraini opposition, broadly cited in the official Iranian media, signalled very much like a prelude to Iranian involvement. Iran cited opposition groups calling Saudi actions an “occupation”. The Speaker of the Majlis, Ali Larijani also strongly condemned and warned that GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, will pay the price for military intervention in Bahrain. Some Iranian officials have maintained the small Gulf emirate, with its majority Shia population, as Iranian territory. In 2007, Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper controlled by conservative and close to the Supreme Leader, published an editorial asserting that it had seen “undeniable documents” specifying that “Bahrain was a part of Iran’s territory until 46 years ago.”

Additionally, the editorial rejected the idea that Bahraini independence from Iran was attained in a legitimate way. A second example of these remarks came in 2009, when Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, former speaker of the Majlis and head of the accountability bureau in the supreme leader’s office, asserted that Iran enjoyed sovereignty over Bahrain, also mentioning that Bahrain had been “the fourteenth province of Iran until 1970.” Yet these comments may have been employed merely as a rhetorical tool. Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari has on various times expressed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Bahrain as “a provincial tour.”

Conducive Factors

However, in the light of present development it could be argued that Iran relations with GCC countries in general and Saudi Arabia in particular would improve especially under the leadership of President Hassan Rouhani. Iran has now began a enchant offensive on the Gulf states, with a visit in December 2013 by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The recent visits signal that the Rouhani government is dedicated to rebuild its relations with regional countries. Recently, Zarif indicated that he would visit Saudi Arabia soon. Even Rafsanjani said recently that he was willing to visit Riyadh in an effort to reduce tension between two major regional countries.

In his first press conference, Rouhani underlined the importance of reducing tensions with Saudi Arabia. Rouhani also emphasised “we are neighbours with Persian Gulf countries and brethren with Saudi Arabia; Muslim’s prayer Quiblah is located in Saudi Arabia; we have close historical, regional and cultural ties.” Rouhani also proudly expressed that he was the first to sign a security agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Even the Iran’s Speaker of parliament also known as follower of the conservative camp, Ali Larijani, said on March 10, 2014 in an interview with Al-Mayadeen TV that Iran is keen to settle issues with Saudi Arabia. He said “Saudi Arabia is an important country in the history of Islam, thus, Iran would not have any motive to engage in political clash with Saudi Arabia. Naturally, there are some differences of positions. But I believe that positions by both countries should be transparently communicated.” President Rouhani and Rafsanjani were also invited by Saudi King Abdullah to Hajj pilgrimage last year.

 In the recent past, there have been confidence-building measures between the two countries. There have been diverse kinds of ideas put ahead in the past regarding a collective security arrangement for resolving the Gulf security dilemma. There are certainly obvious points of convergence on the political and strategic agendas of all Gulf countries that provide credible grounds for both sides on this sort of an arrangement.


Bahrain is a milestone for the Gulf region. If the problems cannot be addressed by the ruling government, then Bahrain will spread trouble to the region — sharpening Shia-Sunni division — and the dangerous competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The involvement, either perceived or actual, of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Bahrain has severe implications for the security of the Gulf region and West Asia. Given the internal dynamics inside both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the legitimacy of regimes in both the countries is opposed on the basis of religious differences and factional divisions. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have sought to manage the situation through the use of religious and nationalist sentiment. Undoubtedly, it is feasible to trace both Iran and Saudi Arabia’s actions externally as a result of internal dynamics.

Bahrain can be perceived through the geo-strategic significance for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, competing for supremacy in the region. However, the confrontation between the two key regional players has never seemed so risky. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia understand that all-out armed quarrel between them could prove disastrous, and that comprehension will act as a strong deterrent.

M Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow, West Asia Centre, and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses {IDSA}, New Delhi)