Features | Security | Central Asia

The Importance of Bahrain

US policymakers wanting to contain Iran’s regional influence should take note of Saudi Arabia’s active courting of its neighbour.

By Steven Sotloff for

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.’

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

In fact one Iranian plot almost three decades ago was actually aimed at overthrowing the Bahraini regime. In 1981, Iran dispatched operatives trained in explosives to the island. The saboteurs were to disguise themselves as policemen, capture senior officials and take over the radio and TV stations in order to urge the Bahraini population to revolt. Though the plot failed, a number of Iranian politicians continue to harbour hopes of overthrowing the Sunni monarchy, claiming Bahrain is the country’s fourteenth province.

In 2009, comments to this effect by Ali Akbar Natiq Nuri, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a former speaker of the parliament, caused tremors throughout the region, prompting Morocco to sever relations with Iran. And Tehran continues to foment unrest on the island—a US cable quoted Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Al Khalifa as saying ‘Iran is also trying to build networks in Bahrain.’

It’s threats like these that have encouraged the Saudis to step in to bolster the Bahraini regime. One tool has been financial largesse—along with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Riyadh funds up to half of the nation’s budget. It also gives Bahrain free oil. Of the approximately 185,000 barrels it produces a day, only 37,000 come from its own fields—the rest are a Saudi gift. In addition, of the approximately 262,000 barrels of oil processed in its refinery, about 200,000 come from the kingdom. Such subsidies prop up a Bahraini economy that’s increasingly financially strapped as its oil runs out (the US State Department estimates its oil reserves will have dried up in about 10 or 15 years).

Saudi Arabia has also provided security support. When the Bahraini Shia—led by Iranian trained clerics—rioted in 1994, the kingdom dispatched 4000 National Guardsmen to subdue the protests. (Opposition members claimed the Saudi forces also staffed checkpoints to shore up the sheikhdom’s undermanned security services).

In addition, Saudi Arabia has a history of shoring up the country’s defences. In the 1980s, for example, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council earmarked $1 billion to build an airbase on the island and to purchase fighter jets to use it. The two countries also conduct joint training exercises aimed at preparing for the possibility that Bahrainis might need to call on their larger neighbour to subdue both foreign and domestic threats.

Saudi support has even extended to backing Bahrain in regional squabbles. Bahrain and neighbouring Qatar have quarrelled over ownership of the Hawar islands, and the Saudis have long supported the Bahraini position, in part to allow it to take a jab at their adversaries in Doha who typically oppose Saudi positions on regional affairs.

The United States could perhaps learn a thing or two from the Saudis’ interest in Bahrain. As the US withdraws its forces from Iraq, shifts its military assets and turns its attention more fully on Afghanistan, it should be careful not to take its eye off the Persian Gulf. Countries such as Bahrain are on the front line of a Sunni-Shia divide that Iran has sought to exploit to foment regional unrest.

And if the United States neglects the region, it’s not only its allies that could suffer—these nations host the US military facilities that help keep Iran in check. Allowing unrest to develop in the Persian Gulf will only make US missions there, and efforts to secure its interests, even more difficult than they already are.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Steven Sotloff is a Yemen-based writer and an adjunct fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.