By James M. Dorsey
US-backed Saudi policy towards Iran threatens to play into the hands of the Islamic republic rather than weaken it and could force some of the kingdom’s Gulf allies to make tough choices against the backdrop of the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Despite differences between Washington and Riyadh on what is fuelling the protests, particularly in the Gulf states of Bahrain and Oman, the US seems to acquiesce to the Saudi view that Bahrain constitutes the frontline in a battle designed to stop Iranian stoking of Shiite Muslim unrest in the region. The US shares Saudi concerns that the demise of Bahrain’s royal Khalifa dynasty could set a dangerous precedent for other monarchies in a strategic part of the world. US acquiescence has thus stopped Washington from paying more than lip service to calls for reform in Bahrain as well as in Saudi Arabia itself.
While the US shares Saudi fears that unrest in Bahrain could spill over into the kingdom’s oil-rich, predominantly Shiite Eastern provinces, it recognizes, unlike the Saudis, that the Shiites have legitimate grievances. Nonetheless, it fears that conceding to the Shiites could open a Pandora’s box that may not only affect the Eastern Province but also its western border with Yemen, another Arab country wracked by protests and home to Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate.
As a result, the Obama administration has been muted in its comments about the brutal crackdown on protesters in Bahrain and silent about the Saudi-led military intervention on the island. Yet, the crackdown and intervention could boomerang. Already, some elements of the opposition are contemplating whether their only alternative may be armed resistance that would almost certainly become dependent on Iranian financial and military support and could create an opening for undercover operations by the Islamic Republic’s feared Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep.
Perceptions of Iran’s invisible hand in unrest in the Gulf were reinforced by the recent arrests of alleged Iranian agents in Bahrain, including state minister Mansour Bin Rajab on IRGC-related money laundering charges, and the expulsion last week of three Iranian diplomats from Kuwait on the grounds that they had been involved in espionage. Iran has denied the charges and on Sunday retaliated by expelling three Kuwaiti diplomats. The reinforced perceptions have relegated to the trash bin one key to ensuring long-term stability in the Gulf: the acknowledgement that Shiite Muslims harbour a deep-seated resentment against long-standing disenfranchisement and discrimination that needs to be addressed by offering them equal opportunity and equitable representation.
The US-backed Saudi approach to Shiite grievances threatens in the longer term to aggravate rather than make the problem go away. Not only does it fuel Shiite Muslim resentment at a time that popular revolt has become a, if not the, key feature of Arab politics, but it also allows Iran to project a degree of strength that it would find difficult to back up militarily. Iran is economically troubled, militarily weak as a result of international sanctions and internally divided with widespread discontent boiling at the surface and only held in check by brutal repression. It faces across the Gulf states that boast some of the world’s highest military expenditure. ‘The Emirati Air Force itself could take out the entire Iranian Air Force,” Gulf scholar David Roberts quotes US General David Petraeus as saying.
Iran compensates for its de facto military weakness by supporting some of the world’s most lethal and sustainable guerrilla groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas. Iran would be offered a golden opportunity if Gulf Shiites were to become convinced that nothing short of violence will help them assert their rights. As a result, the Gulf’s refusal to address Shiite concerns coupled with a policy of brutal repression may produce short-term results but is certain to leave Bahrain and ultimately Saudi Arabia with an open wound that is bound to fester.
Escalating tension could also strain relations among member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi policy enjoys the backing of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. But Qatar and Oman have sought to balance their pro-Saudi and pro-Western policies by maintaining close political and commercial ties to Tehran. Qatari efforts to avoid conflict with Iran are strengthened by the fact that Qatar shares with Iran the world’s biggest gas field.
In the current climate, the question remains as to how long Qatar and Oman can evade having to choose between Iran and their fellow GCC states. A meeting of Gulf foreign ministers in Kuwait last week suggested which way Gulf winds are blowing. The ministers condemned in unusually stark language “continuous Iranian interference in the domestic affairs of the GCC countries, by conspiring against (their) national security … and (instigating) sectarian sedition among their citizens.” The ministers accused Iran of threatening the independence of Gulf states and violating the “principles of good neighborliness, international laws, the charters of the United Nations and the Organization of Islamic Countries.”
James M. Dorsey is a visiting senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.