The Importance of Bahrain
Image Credit: Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The Importance of Bahrain


Another round of talks and another failure to find a breakthrough over Iran’s nuclear programme. Despite it being the most pressing crisis facing the international community, the tougher rhetoric adopted this year appears to have done little to halt Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, with the latest meeting in Istanbul involving the US and EU breaking up without progress at the weekend.

But while Western leaders have gradually ramped up their rhetoric against Tehran over the past few years, applying progressively more painful sanctions in the process, Iran’s Arab neighbours have appeared puzzling silent in the face of this looming threat to regional stability.

At least, they’ve appeared silent—until now. As Meir Javedanfar noted recently in The Diplomat, US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks reveal that Persian Gulf rulers have actually been just as vocal behind closed doors as their Western counterparts have been in public. Bahrain’s King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, for example, told US officials that the nuclear programme should be terminated by ‘whatever means necessary,’ while Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah urged General David Petraeus to ‘cut the head off the snake.’

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Such comments should come as no surprise to those who watch the region closely. Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Tehran’s mullahs have sought to export their Shiite revolution to countries where their co-religionists make up a substantial minority. From Lebanon to Iraq, Iran has supported groups that have sought to weaken the regime and undermine regional stability. As a result, with US commitment to the Middle East apparently wavering, (and with its tendency to cut and run when intransigent regimes and subversive groups turn up the pressure), Arab states have often looked to Saudi Arabia to protect the region from this Persian menace.

One country in particular where the kingdom has succeeded in minimizing Iranian influence is the tiny island nation of Bahrain. From offering the country free oil to sending in soldiers to quell protests, the Saudis have a history of assisting their neighbour. But despite its small size and tiny native population (it’s smaller on both measures than the US state of Rhode Island) Bahrain’s future should be of serious concern for Washington policymakers. After all, the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered there, while its ships patrol the Straits of Hormuz, protecting the narrow waterway from Iranian machinations.

Shia Iran has always looked across this waterway to the oil producing sheikhdoms with some enmity—a number of the principalities in the region have significant Shia populations, but are ruled by Sunni monarchies that have suppressed their religious status.

And Bahrain has always looked a particularly appealing target for Iran. The Shia there account for about 70 percent of the population, but are ruled by a Sunni minority. In addition, the island was under Persian rule for most of the period between 1602 and 1783. It was these factors that prompted Tehran’s newly enthroned mullahs to incite Bahrain’s Shia to rebel against their Sunni masters.

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