March 24, 2011

FYI Bahrain: The Iranian Thorn in Saudi Arabia’s Side

Frontline Magazine
written by Stephen Brown
Friday March 25, 2011

The occupation of Bahrain by 2,000 Saudi-led Gulf troops in mid-March was just the latest manifestation of the largely unknown Sunni-Shiite conflict currently taking place across the Islamic world. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are locked in a struggle for supremacy among the Muslim faithful from Nigeria to Malaysia where Shiism, for example, is practically banned. While relations between Islam’s two largest sects are generally good in most Islamic countries, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi doctrine contains a “virulent hatred” for Shiites.

This unstated war is based on the view that each regards itself as the representative of true Islam, while the despised other represents heresy. The conflict’s roots are political and concern a difference in belief about the Prophet Muhammad’s successors. But the dispute sometimes turns violent, even during the Hajj in Mecca and Medina, where riots by Shiite pilgrims, believed provoked by Iran, have resulted in hundreds of deaths.

Saudi Arabia decided to intervene in Bahrain after the island nation’s security forces appeared unable to handle the ongoing protests from the Shiite majority who make up 70 per cent of the country’s 500,000 population. A further 200,000 people live in Bahrain but are not citizens. The kingdom’s ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is a Sunni Muslim as is the country’s ruling elite. While technically a constitutional monarchy, the Bahraini parliament’s power is limited in favour of the king, the country’s real power broker.

Although Iran is accused of having a hand in the latest Bahraini demonstrations, which started in mid-February (after the Saudi military intervention, an Iranian imam called on demonstrators to continue protesting), the disturbances are still driven largely by economics, like those in Tunisia and Egypt. The Shiites are Bahrain’s poorest and least educated people. Despite the country’s oil wealth, they, like the rebels in Eastern Libya, rightly believe they have never received a fair share of the economic pie. As a result, Bahrain’s Shiites have been demonstrating for a true democracy to be established, which, like in Shiite-majority Iraq, would see them take power after the first election.

That scenario, however, represents 1001 nightmares to Saudi Arabia and to the other Sunni oil kingdoms of the Persian Gulf that constitute the occupation force. The fear here is that Shiite control of Bahrain would only result in Iran eventually realizing its long-held ambition of taking over the strategically-located island. Bahrain is just off of Saudi Arabia’s east coast and is linked to its neighbour by a causeway, across which lies the Saudis’ sensitive Eastern Province. This Saudi province not only contains Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population, but also the all-important oil, upon which America and other industrialised countries heavily depend.

This threat to the Saudi oil fields is also behind the Obama administration’s refusal to denounce the Saudi military venture. In the New York Times, White House spokesman Jay Carney was even quoted as saying that “this is not an invasion of a country.” The official American stance, however, has left the administration open to charges of hypocrisy, since it supported the demands of the unarmed demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia and is backing the rebels in Libya with force.

The Saudis believe the Iranians’ game plan is eventually to use Bahrain as a stepping stone to destabilize this ultra-sensitive area. Already earlier this month, in imitation of Egypt’s revolution, there was a ‘Day of Rage’ in the Eastern Province that saw several hundred Shiites demonstrate against the Saudi government. Like in Bahrain, dissatisfaction among Saudi Arabia’s two million marginalised Shiites obviously exists and is open to possible exploitation.

Far from shy, Iranian politicians have openly expressed their desire to acquire Bahrain. Several times in recent years they have called it Iran’s 14th province, basing their claim on a time in the 1800s when Iran controlled the island. And although the shah’s government renounced this claim in 1969, Iran’s ruling mullahs obviously see things differently today.

Iran has also been backing up its claim to Bahrain with action. Only last year, Bahrain arrested hundreds of Shiites, some local and some foreign, who were involved in a plot to launch attacks in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Iran has also been accused of involvement in previous disturbances in Bahrain as well.

While Saudi Arabia appears to have won the struggle for Bahrain, at least for the time being, it has had less success in other areas in its proxy war with Iran. Iranian-backed Hezbollah recently became the political power in Lebanon, ousting the previous, Saudi-supported government. In the sectarian violence in Iraq, thousands of Sunnis were killed and tens of thousands fled as refugees. President Obama’s intention to withdraw American troops from Iraq by year’s end also contains the danger of an Iranian invasion that would most likely bring the two countries into direct conflict.

At the moment, this Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war is probably most intense in Pakistan, which is a hotbed of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence. An anti-Shiite political party, Sepah-e-Sahaba Pakistan once even tried to have Shiites declared infidels but was unsuccessful. A breakaway terrorist faction, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, patronized by Saudi Arabia, now simply kills Shiites, targeting their mosques and leaders. Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, also deadly haters of the Shia, share in these sectarian murders.

Pakistani Shiites, who constitute 20 percent of the country’s 160 million people, retaliated by forming their own Iran-supported terrorist organization, Sepah Mohammad, which murders Sunnis. About 800 Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings occurred in Pakistan in 2009 with the number increasing every year.

Saudi fears of Iranian aggression also extend to its border with Yemen where the Iran-supported Shiite Houthi tribes, who make up 40 percent of Yemen’s population, are fighting a central government that is backed by Saudi Arabia. Since the intermittent Shiite insurgency is taking place on the Saudi Arabian border, the Saudis fear the area could become a launching pad for attacks on the kingdom.

In the last outbreak of violence in 2009, in which more than 1,000 people died, the Saudi fears were justified. The Houthis raided into Saudi territory, killing a Saudi border guard. The Saudis responded with warplane raids and massed troops on the Yemeni border, which intensified the fighting.

With American influence on the wane in the Middle East, a major political remaking of the area is underway, which will ultimately see the Sunnis and Shiites confronting one another with regional hegemony as the prize. Saudi Arabia fears Iran and has been making major weapons purchases for this perceived showdown. Indicating their preoccupation with the Shiite state, in 2010, the Saudis ordered $60 billion worth of arms, having purchased, in comparison, $50 billion in the years since 9/11.

In perhaps the most violent and destructive of Sunni-Shiite proxy wars, Saudi Arabia backed Saddam Hussein in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, in which a million people died. Iran always said it would seek revenge for those responsible for that conflict and, since Saddam Hussein fell, is reported in Wikileaks to have had its death squads murder 180 Iraqi pilots who dropped poison gas on its troops. Knowing Iran’s desire for revenge, expansion and hegemony, the recent Saudi-led occupation of Bahrain was principally a message to Iran. It was also probably the opening move in the new Middle East’s next Sunni-Shiite war.

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