Dr. Mabon is in the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds.*
With the demise of Iraq as a regional Gulf power, Iran and Saudi Arabia have sought to assert dominance over the Gulf and wider Middle East region. This competition has manifested itself across various arenas, especially in Iraq, the Levant, and Bahrain. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia appreciate the importance of the Kingdom of Bahrain, reflected in the strategic calculations and behavior of each state. Indeed, Tehran and Riyadh have long been concerned about the influence of the other across the archipelago. While their competition has a long history, this article is concerned with the events of 2011 that culminated in Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces crossing the King Fahd Causeway and entering Manama to offer support to the Al Khalifa ruling family. The case of Bahrain offers rich scope for analysing the relationship between Tehran and Riyadh on both ideological and geopolitical grounds. First, the Kingdom of Bahrain is perceived to be the epicentre of the peninsula's "sectarian disenfranchisement."1 Indeed, within Bahrain, 70-75 percent of the population is Shia, who are perceived to have ties with Iran. In contrast, the ruling Al Khalifa family is Sunni and possesses strong ties to Saudi Arabia. Secondly, Bahrain's geographic location provides opportunity to analyse geopolitical competition within the bilateral relationship.
This article argues that Bahrain has provided a proxy arena of competition between Tehran and Riyadh that possesses key strategic value for both states. Given the fractious nature of identity incongruence within Bahrain, notably between the Sunni ruling family and the much larger Shia population, it is undeniable that the kingdom faces serious internal-security challenges. These challenges then leave Bahrain open to the influence of other actors, for whom the stability of the country is strategically important. The article suggests that, although the veracity of claims detailing the Iranian influence in supporting the Shia of Bahrain is uncertain, the strategic importance of the Al Khalifa for Saudi Arabia, coupled with a history of Iranian action in Bahrain, clerical ties and Iranian rhetoric, means that Riyadh has to act under the assumption that these claims are valid.
I begin by offering a background to Bahrain, with particular focus upon its demographic and sectarian construction and its geopolitical and ideological importance for both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The influence of the Arab Spring in Bahrain is then considered, given that the emergence of uprisings in Manama brought Saudi security concerns to the fore. I then seek to answer three questions: Why did Iran and Saudi Arabia become involved? How did internal dynamics within each state manifest themselves in competition within Bahrain? Finally, is competition within Bahrain driven by ideological or geopolitical factors?
The Kingdom of Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands, the largest of which is Bahrain, located some 16 kilometers from Saudi Arabia and linked to it by the King Fahd Causeway, which opened in 1986. The population of Bahrain, according to a 2010 census, stands at 1,234,571, only 568,399 of whom are Bahraini nationals,2 making Bahrain the smallest GCC state. Bahrain is rife with sectarian tensions; some reports suggest that as much as 75 percent of the population is Shia.3 The ruling tribe, the Al Khalifa, emanate from the Arabian Peninsula and are Sunni Muslims. The Al Khalifa came to power in the eighteenth century, arriving from Qatar and, with the help of tribal allies from the peninsula, overthrowing the Persian rulers. Given this history, "Bahraini Arab Shiites consider themselves the true original inhabitants of Bahrain and surrounding smaller islands."4 On the grounds of shared ethnic and religious ties, the Bahraini Arab Shia possess close ties with the Shia of Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, it is believed by both Riyadh and Manama that, like the Shia of Saudi Arabia, the Shia of Bahrain possess a dual loyalty to both Bahrain and Iran. Indeed, again, like the Shia of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the Shia in Bahrain "have long been viewed as a potential Iranian fifth column — a legacy of the 1981 coup attempt by the Islamic Front for Liberation of Bahrain, an Iranian-backed Shia militant organisation."5 Given both the legacy of Iranian claims to Bahrain and the large Shia population within the kingdom, Ruhollah Khomeini's desire to export the goals of the 1979 Islamic revolution across the region made Bahrain an obvious immediate target.
Although there was the suspicion of ties between the Shia of Bahrain and Tehran, their degree is difficult to ascertain: "Despite the occasional discovery of domestic plots with confirmed or suspected links to Tehran, Arabic-speaking Saudi and Bahraini Shiites have generally expressed cautious, even wary, attitudes towards their Persian-speaking Iranian coreligionists across the Gulf."6 This suspicion can be traced back to the legacy of ethnic conflict between Arabs and Persians that has dominated Middle Eastern history.
TENSION AND DISCRIMINATION
Within Bahrain there exists much tension and discrimination, which predominantly manifests itself against the Shia community. Indeed, members of the Shia community are unable to access senior government positions,7 reflecting an institutionalized discrimination within the political realm. Further examples include the naturalization of non-Bahrainis (predominantly Sunnis) in an effort to alter the island's demography, and their exclusion from public-sector employment.8 In addition to sectarian issues, Bahrain has endured protracted tension between government and opposition groups that transcends pure sectarian divides. As Joost Hilterman and Kelly McEvers note, there are "many divides now cross-cutting the country: between members of the regime, between Sunni and Shia, or between protesters — some of whom, like the villagers in Aali, have called for the end of the monarchy itself — and licensed opposition groups, such as Wefaq, that in the past have been willing to engage with the Crown Prince on the outlines of reform."9
Indeed, tensions within Bahrain can also be seen within the ruling family, in a split within the Al Khalifa "between hardliners and those advocating a more conciliatory approach."10 Within this split, Crown Prince Salman, the son of King Hamad, is one of the more liberal members of the Al Khalifa, often making statements such as this: "We all aspire to a better tomorrow, in which nothing but development, progress, respect for the rule of law, and coexistence represent the utmost goal we all seek to achieve."11
While Bahrain has long endured social tensions, the prosperity fostered by the sale of oil helped reduce them.12 The decrease in the oil money has facilitated an increase in tensions across the country. Furthermore, the steady decline of resources has meant that the Al Khalifa are increasingly reliant upon Saudi Arabia for financial support. Given the tensions currently roiling Bahrain, it is unsurprising that the kingdom is open to external interference, to provide support either for the regime or for protest movements.
A HISTORY OF COMPETITION
While this article is predominantly concerned with competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, competition between the two over Bahrain has much deeper roots. Indeed, Iranian claims to Bahrain reach back into the eighteenth century, when ancestors of the Al Khalifa "wrested Bahrain in 1783 from an indirect Persian rule."13 In 1820, claims to Bahrain were uttered by the then-Persian rulers.14 However, these claims to ownership over Bahrain also possess a contemporary aspect, as demonstrated by Hussain Shariatmadari, the editor of the Iranian newspaper Kayhan, in an editorial suggesting that "Bahrain was an inseparable part of Iran."15 It is pertinent to note that anecdotal evidence has suggested that the Al Saud have recently sought to lay their own claim to Bahrain in the guise of a formal union between the two states, entitled the GCC-Arabian Union.16 However, given the problematic nature of such a venture, this appears to be part of the larger game with Iran.
In the aftermath of British withdrawal from the Gulf, Iran was presented with an opportunity to assert its dominance over the region, immediately reviving the "historical Persian claim to sovereignty over Bahrain."17 However, Saudi Arabia was opposed to this idea. Indeed, the case of Bahrain is one of the instances where Iran and Saudi Arabia were in disagreement prior to 1979. The issue was resolved, with Iran saving face, when the shah suggested that the Bahrainis should be able to determine their own fate. This opened the door for a UN mission to discover that the people of Bahrain desired independence.18
Saudi Arabia also possesses strong ties with Bahrain, stemming in part from the Al Khalifa's tribal roots in Saudi Arabia, and also from economic ties, facilitated by the sale of oil.19 Moreover, Bahrain plays an important role for Saudi Arabia, acting as a valve for social pressures stemming from the implementation of strict Wahhabi doctrine. Indeed, many Saudis regularly cross the King Fahd causeway on a Friday in order to be able to drink alcohol in bars and clubs. However, there also exists a strong level of concern within Saudi Arabia over how the Al Khalifa have responded to the Shia question within Bahrain, as that political accommodation of the Shia community may foster increasing Iranian involvement within the state.
The importance of Bahrain for Saudi Arabia transcends the mere provision of support for the Al Khalifa, although this remains an important issue. Rather, the importance of Bahrain is twofold. First, there are geopolitical concerns about increasing Iranian power within the Persian Gulf and across the wider Middle East. Indeed, the Al Saud are eager to prevent increasing Iranian involvement within Bahrain, given such close proximity to the kingdom, and they perceive the stability of the Al Khalifa as necessary for achieving this. As such, Saudi Arabian support for the Al Khalifa includes bankrolling items on Bahrain's national budget, while also paying for King Hamad's Boeing 747-400.20 In addition to financial and ideological support, ties between the Al Saud and the Al Khalifa have been solidified by the marriage of a daughter of King Abdullah to a son of King Hamad. Secondly, Bahrain's importance stems from concerns within Saudi Arabia about shared ethnic bonds between the Shia of Bahrain and the Shia of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Thus, for the Al Saud, increasing Shia power in Bahrain may lead to an empowered Shia community in the Eastern Province.
Riyadh's concern over increasing Iranian involvement in Bahrain is not purely a contemporary phenomenon. Indeed, this can be traced back to the time of the shah and the development of the King Fahd Causeway. Indeed, this project was initially planned in the 1960s, during which time the shah maintained Iranian claims to Bahrain. Yet suspicion of Iranian interference across the region, specifically within Bahrain, increased with the revolution of 1979 and Khomeini's desire to export the revolution. Indeed, Shahram Chubin, writing in 1992, articulated this suspicion of Iranian intentions, in particular how the Saudis "need reassurance, too, of the acceptance by Tehran of the principle of non-interference, a primary principle for any regional arrangement in their view. The Saudi government is cautious and believes that the onus is on Iran to prove its genuineness."21
The speed of construction of the causeway was dramatically increased after the revolution of 1979. Despite the belief that the road's purpose was to increase economic ties, it appears that its development was to engender easier access in case of trouble for the Al Khalifa. Indeed, as Simon Henderson notes, the building of the causeway predominantly reflected growing security concerns: "so that the Saudi military could quickly reinforce the Bahraini regime when necessary."22
THE 1981 COUP D'ÉTAT
Understanding the relationship between Iran and opposition groups operating within Bahrain is problematic; however, it is possible to understand contemporary ties by looking at the historical relationship between Iran and opposition groups, particularly al-Jabha al-Islamiyya li Tahrir al-Bahrayn (the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, the IFLB). The IFLB was accused by the Al Khalifa of attempting a coup d'état in 1981, alleging that the group received help from Tehran in order to achieve this. The Bahraini government suggested that the IFLB received support and training from the pasdaran,23 which echoed Tehran's behaviour across the region in the immediate aftermath of the revolution.24
The IFLB's goal of overthrowing the Al Khalifa regime was thwarted in 1981 with the arrest of 52 Gulf Arab and Bahrain nationals — and a further 13 were arrested in Saudi Arabia.25 Iranian involvement within Bahrain can be seen in two ways: first, in terms of spreading the ideological views of Khomeini, while also challenging the legitimacy of the Al Saud:
[A] coup in Bahrain would have established Khomeinism on the other side of the Gulf and would have had paramount importance in securing the sympathy of several hundred thousand native Saudi Shia living in the oases on the peninsula's eastern shore. Khomeini had been sending his propagandists on pilgrimage to Mecca since 1979 to challenge the legitimacy of Saudi control over the Holy Places; and when the Grand Mosque was attacked by Saudi dissidents in November 1979, Khomeini did not hesitate to accuse the Saudi authorities of acting against Islam by suppressing the riots within the sacred precincts.26
A second reading of the situation suggests that Iranian involvement inside Bahrain was a result of military calculations within the Iran-Iraq War, demonstrating again how ideological considerations can feed into geopolitical calculations.
Hasan Alhasan's study on the IFLB provides valuable insight into ties between that group and Iran, suggesting that there are five areas in which Iran has been linked with the IFLB: ideology, leadership, media support, logistics and military training.27 Alhansan's work outlines the IFLB aims:
The immediate goals of the group were (1) the toppling of the Al Khalifa regime, (2) establishing a "free Islamic order," (3) obtaining true independence for Bahrain, (4) achieving cultural and economic independence, (5) eradicating illiteracy and implementing mandatory education, and (6) the scientific and technological advancement of the country. Its long-term objectives revolved around three axes, namely: the development of the individual as one educated in Islam, embodying its morals, carrying its message, and being prepared to sacrifice himself in its defense; building the believing community through a vanguard capable of leading it to glory; and finally the erection of Islamic civilization, which would be the end result of the Islamic Revolution.28
While many of these goals can be viewed independently from Iran — and, indeed, ties to Iran appear to limit the possibility of achieving some of these goals, such as true independence for Bahrain — the influence of the 1979 revolution is undeniable. Much like the Shia of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, the Shia of Bahrain may have been invigorated by the revolution of 1979, rather than being directly motivated by it.29 Indeed, the revolution of 1979 may have acted as an inspiration for the IFLB, as it did for the Shia of Lebanon and the emergence of Hezbollah.
The IFLB is listed by Shmuel Bar as a proxy of Iran, falling into the category of "Virtual ‘Front' Organisations," which Bar suggests do "not exist as independent political or military entities and can be counted as merely ‘virtual' branches of the Iranian MOIS or IRGC/Qods Force."30 Bar argues that, without support from Iran, the IFLB and other virtual front organisations would cease to exist. However, while Bar's analysis of the IFLB stresses the organisation's need for continued Iranian support, the legitimacy derived from clerical ties between Bahrain and Tehran suggests that this is not an entirely accurate reading. Indeed, it is pertinent to note the importance of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who provides ideological guidance for many of the Shia within Bahrain.
SPRING IN BAHRAIN
While numerous Middle Eastern states were affected by the spate of uprisings commonly known as the Arab Spring, Bahrain was among the most damaged. The reason for this is twofold: first, Bahrain's sectarian schism; and second, the involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia in a form of proxy conflict on Bahraini soil. The roots of the Arab Spring in Bahrain can be traced back to the accession of Hamad Al Khalifa to emir, then king, when his father died in 1999.31 Upon his accession, King Hamad offered a programme of reforms in an attempt to move Bahrain away from its authoritarian tradition,32 although the lack of implementation of many of these reforms added to the growing discontent.
In the aftermath of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, many citizens of Bahrain became restless, taking to the streets for a "day of rage" on February 14, 2011. The protesters occupied Pearl Roundabout, also known as Lulu Roundabout, although since the protests the regime has insisted on referring to it by its official name, the Gulf Cooperation Council Roundabout.33 While Pearl Roundabout was an iconic part of Manama, in an effort to prevent symbolism, the regime was decisive in destroying it on March 18, thus removing a symbol around which the protest could grow.
Although the majority of the protesters were Shia, this was not initially a sectarian protest. Rather, it was driven by calls for political and democratic reform and the devolution of a degree of power from the palace to the elected parliament.34 Protests were generally peaceful and avoided directly criticizing King Hamad, although the response of the state's security forces was heavy-handed, further incensing the protesters35 and leading to the evolution of the protests. After a prolonged period of skirmishes with security forces, and numerous deaths, the protesters occupied Pearl Square in Manama. On March 14, one month after the protests began, Bahrain invoked a GCC security clause that triggered the arrival of Saudi and GCC forces under the aegis of the Peninsula Shield Force.
The arrival of Saudi-led GCC troops in Bahrain demonstrated the perceived severity of the security situation within Bahrain. The presence of these troops was to ensure the survival of the Al Khalifa regime, viewed as a red line by Riyadh. Furthermore, the presence of Saudi troops was also an attempt to prevent the Shia of Bahrain from gaining more democratic power, which could have serious implications for the internal stability of Saudi Arabia.
According to an International Crisis Group report, an estimated 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops crossed the King Fahd Causeway, along with police and troops from the UAE and Qatar.36 The mission of the GCC troops was "to support the government against its domestic challengers and deter Iran from becoming embroiled in the conflict."37 And, while the presence of these troops was not continually visible across Bahrain, "the warning was clear: desist or be made to desist."38 In seeking to end the protests, security forces attacked opposition headquarters, demolished unlicensed Shia religious structures and, according to Shia clerics, allegedly destroyed at least 38 mosques.39
While Saudi Arabia's presence within Bahrain was undeniable, Iranian involvement within the kingdom is less easily ascertained. Many Bahraini officials, along with members of the GCC, have accused Iran of interfering within Bahrain, although empirical evidence to support this is difficult to locate. Ascertaining the exact level of Iranian involvement within Bahrain is troublesome, but the notion that Iran supported, if not instigated, these protests appears probable. Indeed, this notion transcends Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with the United States acknowledging Iran's "propensity for mischief"40 within Bahrain.
Although there is ambiguity as to the extent of Iranian involvement in the protests across Bahrain, the veracity of ties between Bahraini Shia clerics and Tehran is obvious. Indeed, Sheikh Isa Ahmad Qassem, the spiritual leader of the main opposition party, Wafaq, and the leader of Friday prayers at a mosque in the predominantly Shia-populated Diraz City, "is a religious representative of Khamenei, collecting taxes for the Supreme Leader, propagating his religious authority, and encouraging people to follow him rather than other ‘sources of emulation.'"41 He has been described by Khamenei as a "star in the sky" of Shiism. However, not all Bahraini clerics possess ties to Iran; indeed, some maintain close ties with clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf, Iraq. Despite this, most were trained in Qom and thus speak Farsi.
In light of the response of government forces to protests, several Shia clerics wrote to Khamenei urging him to help the Shia population of Bahrain. The letter was signed "followers of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei in Bahrain" and was widely published in the Iranian media.42 Yet the debate about Iran's actions in Bahrain has also included questioning whether Iran has been "unable or unwilling to help its coreligionists in Bahrain,"43 which is an important distinction to make when discussing Iranian power. While Iran has accused Bahrain and Saudi Arabia of killing many Shia Muslims, Tehran's apparent ineptitude may have a negative impact on Iran's influence with Shia Arabs, both within Bahrain and across the Middle East.
The events across Bahrain share many characteristics of uprisings across the region, but Simon Henderson notes that the prevalence of Shia clerics suggests parallels with Iran:
But for the profusion of Bahraini flags, mass demonstrations led by turbaned Shiite mullahs in Manama look as though they might be taking place in Iran. Indeed, the Bahrain government itself reinforces this perception by emphasizing the links with Tehran of Shiite leaders, pointing to any public statements that suggest sympathy with the Islamic republic.44
However, the role of Shia mullahs in protests in Iran has rarely been seen since the revolution of 1979, with protests in Iran focusing more on economic and democratization issues.
THE BASSIOUNI REPORT
In the aftermath of the events across Bahrain, King Hamad commissioned an official report to look at accusations of human-rights abuses. The report was led by Professor Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American human-rights expert. The Bassiouni Report was incredibly thorough, including interview with over 5,000 witnesses. The report detailed 35 deaths, including protesters and security forces who were killed, along with expatriate workers.45 In addition, the report detailed how 4,400 people were "unjustly fired from public and private-sector jobs,"46 adding to feelings of ostracism among the Shia population. The report contains a condemnation of government troops for use of excessive force and detaining protesters illegally, suggesting that — in light of the torture of a number of detainees and the deaths of five people from torture47 — torture was a "deliberate practice" employed by several government agencies. 48
However, the report dismissed government allegations that Iran was behind the incidents, although in the immediate aftermath of the report's being read out, King Hamad delivered a prepared speech that stuck to the line "that Iran is supporting anti-government protests."49 This apparent contradiction between the official report and the king further highlights the difficulty in ascertaining the nature of Iranian involvement within Bahrain and separating suspicion from fact.
IRAN AND SAUDI ARABIA
The political unrest within Bahrain has presented Iran and Saudi Arabia with the scope to engage in a proxy conflict, in addition to their competition in the Levant and Iraq. Indeed, the involvement of Saudi-led GCC troops in Bahrain added an additional level of competition for regional dominance.50 In light of the beliefs of Shiism and veleyat-e faqih — the provision of support for the downtrodden of the Muslim world — it has been alleged that Iran was increasingly involved in the protests in Bahrain. This belief, coupled with the red line for Saudi Arabia of protecting the Al Khalifa, provides justification for the Saudi intervention within Bahrain; however, this fails to account for other important factors. Indeed, when examining the proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, one must consider the internal-security dilemmas within each state and how their resolution feeds into the external-security dilemma between Tehran and Riyadh.
Despite the allegations of Iranian involvement inside Bahrain, it is difficult to ascertain the exact nature of ties between Bahraini opposition groups and Tehran. The previous analysis of the nature of the IFLB and their ties with Iran provides scope to consider the potential character of contemporary ties. Indeed, this includes the provision of ideological backing, through close ties between several opposition clerics and Khamenei, as well as media support. Furthermore, while there is no solid "evidence that Iran played a part in Bahrain's uprising […], it is reasonable to expect Shiites to be more receptive to Iran if they do gain power."51 Conversely, the influence of Saudi Arabia would diminish. Indeed, this is even more evident after the presence of the Saudi-led GCC force in Bahrain.
When considering the rationale for the involvement of Tehran and Riyadh within Bahrain, one must consider the internal dynamics of both Iran and Saudi Arabia and how the resolution of internal security dilemmas has fostered increased tensions between the two states.52 The case of Bahrain thus also necessitates examination of the importance of internal factors within Iran and Saudi Arabia that have guided state behavior towards Bahrain. Furthermore, Bahrain has a high level of geopolitical importance for both states, given its proximity to Saudi Arabia and its role within the GCC. As such, geopolitical considerations as well as ideological constraints guide both Tehran and Riyadh in their behavior within Bahrain. Bahrain also provides an additional area of interest in exploring the nature of the regional security system and the debate as to whether the security of the Gulf could be secured without the help of external actors.
Given the internal challenges within both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the legitimacy of regimes in both states is challenged by identity incongruence arising from ethno-tribal and religious differences.53 Both Tehran and Riyadh have sought to respond to this through the use of religious and nationalist sentiment. Indeed, it is possible to track both Iran's and Saudi Arabia's behavior externally as a consequence of internal dynamics. As Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp note, "Saudi assertiveness towards its immediate neighbors has generally had internal causes, linked to the ruling family's concern for its security, but also for its legitimacy, as the terms in which this has been defined have changed."54
For the Al Saud, given the proximity (both geographically and ideologically) between the Shia of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the uprisings within Bahrain are of great concern, given the potential ramifications for the stability of the Eastern Province; indeed, Saudi Arabia has long feared the increasing might of its own Shia population. The rising power of these Shia has historically coincided with Shia gains across the region, as seen in the aftermath of the revolution in Iran. However, it is important to question the distinction between perception and reality.
Thus, in offering support to the Al Khalifa regime against the Shia in Bahrain, Riyadh is seeking to prevent the political empowerment of this community, fearful that "any political gains by Bahrain's Shiites will likewise be demanded by Saudi Shiites."55 Moreover, the pressure placed on the Al Khalifa to resist calls for democratic reform can be traced back to Riyadh, again, fearful of the consequences for its own Shia population. However, it is possible that the Saudi-led GCC intervention has done more to incite Shia populations in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in turn pushing these populations closer to Iran.
In addition to concern at the rising empowerment of the Shia, Riyadh has also been motivated to act by the power of the Wahhabi ulema and their proximity to hard-line members of the Al Saud, namely Crown Prince Nayef. In seeking to retain the support of the Wahhabi ulema, thus maintaining their legitimacy both internally and externally, the Al Saud are required to respond to the sectarian nature of the ideological challenge posed by Iran.
Furthermore, given increasing Shia gains across the Middle East, notably in Iraq, Saudi Arabia is reluctant to allow the Shia in another neighboring country to make prominent gains, let alone in such close proximity to Saudi Arabia.
As Gregory Gause notes, the sectarian aspect is becoming increasingly open within the bilateral relationship, a process facilitated by the events in Bahrain.56 However, in allowing the sectarian issue to become more prominent in strategic calculations, the Al Saud are risking inflaming internal tensions within its Eastern Province, and leaving the regime open to Joseph Nevo's "double edged sword," both serving as a legitimizing tool and opening Saudi Arabia to criticisms from fundamentalist Islamic groups.57 Furthermore, while Sunnis dramatically outnumber their Shia counterparts across the region, the power of Shia groups is undeniably growing, leaving Saudi Arabia in an increasingly hostile neighborhood, surrounded by powerful Shia states. However, in contrast to this position, Mehdi Khaliji suggests that "Tehran wants to avoid being seen as igniting sectarian conflict in the Arab world, whether in Bahrain or elsewhere,"58 given the different demographics of Sunni and Shia populations, respectively. Given the increase in Shia power across the region, perhaps this adds even more weight to the Al Saud calculation that the security of the Al Khalifa regime is a red line. As such, given the perception of increased Iranian involvement within Bahrain and the ensuing empowerment of the Shia across the Middle East and thus Iran, Saudi Arabia has been left with little choice but to become involved in securing the regime of the Al Khalifa.
BAHRAIN'S GEOPOLITICAL IMPORTANCE
Within Tehran's strategic calculations there exists confusion as to how to behave towards Bahrain. One line of argument suggests that Iran has sought to improve its relations with members of the GCC, as demonstrated by Ahmadinejad's presence at a GCC meeting in Doha in 2007 (the first time an Iranian president had been invited). Yet, at the same time, numerous prominent figures within the Iranian regime have offered inflammatory remarks that appear to be counterproductive to advancing relations with the GCC.
In 2007, Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper with strong ties to Khamenei, published an editorial stating that it had seen "undeniable documents" indicating that "Bahrain was a part of Iran's territory until 46 years ago."59 Furthermore, the editorial rejected the notion that Bahraini independence from Iran was achieved in a legitimate manner. 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, claimed that Iran possessed sovereignty over Bahrain,60 also declaring that Bahrain had been "the fourteenth province of Iran until 1970."61 Yet these remarks may have been employed purely as a rhetorical tool.
Regardless, the perception of increasing Shia influence within Bahrain is seen by Riyadh as increasing Iranian influence there, as articulated by the International Crisis Group: "Saudi Arabia purportedly is responding to dual fears: that the popular uprising could lead to a Shiite takeover, and a Shiite takeover would be tantamount to an Iranian one."62 Indeed, these concerns are echoed across the GCC states, with numerous foreign ministers "deeply worried about continuing Iranian meddling."63 However the veracity of such beliefs is contested, the existence of this perception means that Saudi Arabia must behave as if it is true.
It is important to look at the attempted IFLB coup d'état of 1981 when considering Tehran's influence upon contemporary Bahraini opposition groups, especially when attempting to ascertain the veracity of Iranian involvement in the current uprisings. Furthermore, when the legacy of Iranian involvement in Bahrain is coupled with Shia uprisings in the Eastern Province and the fear of Iranian involvement in these uprisings, both the Al Saud and Al Khalifa are hugely concerned at Tehran's influence.
The case of Bahrain also illustrates the debate over the provision of security within the Persian Gulf. Bahrain shares similar beliefs to Saudi Arabia with regard to the role of external actors, namely the role played by the United States. The Al Khalifa have sought to ensure their security through an alliance with the United States, leading to a long-standing U.S. naval presence in Bahrain.64 However, this alliance and the presence of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain has been used as leverage against the Al Khalifa by various Shia opposition groups, namely the February 14 Freedom Movement, who suggest that the Al Khalifa have allowed the U.S. presence against the wishes of the "brave people of Bahrain."65 This rhetoric supports the Iranian position that Gulf security should be maintained purely by states situated in the Gulf.
The involvement, either perceived or actual, of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Bahrain has severe implications for the security of the Gulf region and the wider Middle East. While the roots of this proxy conflict are ideological, the geopolitical importance of the archipelago cannot be understated. As such, the notion that protecting the Al Khalifa regime in Manama is a red line for Saudi Arabia has caused direct military intervention within Bahrain. While the actual level of Iranian involvement within Bahrain is uncertain, both Manama and Riyadh have acted on the assumption that Tehran has offered support to opposition groups. This has historically been the case, and clerics in Bahrain have had close ties with Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Given this assumption, the presence of GCC troops was intended to support the Al Khalifa and prevent increasing Shia, and thus Iranian, influence in Bahrain. However, as argued by the International Crisis Group report of 2011, "The intervention likely achieved precisely the opposite of what it intended,"66 namely increasing sympathy towards Iran from the Shia populations of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and possibly also Kuwait. Moreover, in strategic calculations, Tehran can claim victory regardless of the veracity of allegations about the extent of Iranian action within Bahrain, on the grounds that sectarian tensions are increasing within both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Simon Henderson suggests that Iran has embarked on a larger, strategic game, "avoiding direct involvement for now and leaving its coreligionists to be bludgeoned by Bahrain's security forces." 67 Furthermore, sectarian tensions can be said to have been increased across the Middle East region as a whole, with condemnation of the presence of GCC troops in Bahrain from Hizballah's General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Internal dynamics within both Iran and Saudi Arabia have also added increased motivation for both Tehran and Riyadh to act. While the Al Saud are concerned at the increasing power of the Shia in Bahrain and the potential consequences for the Shia of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, Bahrain provides an opportunity for Iran to increase its legitimacy both internally and externally. Bahrain can be viewed through the lens of the Arab Street, with both Tehran and Riyadh competing for legitimacy. The Al Saud have sought to preserve the Al Khalifa, but Tehran's tacit support for opposition groups, many of whom are calling for the overthrow of the monarchy, has increased tensions between the two states.
The strategic implications of the battle for Bahrain are thus hugely important, both for regional security and the internal stability of Saudi Arabia. Ascertaining the exact level of Iranian involvement within Bahrain is problematic; however, the mere perception of Iranian influence has necessitated a response from Saudi Arabia. Yet Riyadh's response may have unintended consequences and undermine the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia. In contrast, the lack of a strong response from Tehran in support of the Shia may have also undermined Iranian legitimacy. The notion of legitimacy is hugely important for the governments of both Tehran and Riyadh and for the continued stability of both states. When this concern about legitimacy is coupled with the ideological and geopolitical importance of the archipelago, it is clear that the battle for Bahrain is of paramount importance.
* I would like to thank Dr. James Worrall for his comments on a previous draft of this article.
1 Frederick Wehrey, Theodore W. Karasik, Alireza Nader, Jeremy J Ghez, Lydia Hansell, and Robert A. Guffey, Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy (RAND Corporation, 2009), 53.
2 2010 Census, accessed September 2, 2012, www.cio.gov.bh/CIO_ARA/English/Publications/census/General%20%20%202011….
3 Laura Guazzone, "Gulf Co-operation Council: The Security Policies," in Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 30 no. 2 (1988): 134-148. However, the International Crisis Group suggests that this is only 70%; International Crisis Group, Bahrain's Sectarian Challenge, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa….
4 Simon Henderson, Saudi Arabia's Fears for Bahrain (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2011), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3309.
5 Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic M. Wehrey, "A Nuclear Iran: The Reactions of Neighbours," Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 49 no. 2, (2007): 116.
7 International Crisis Group, Bahrain's Sectarian Challenge, June 5, 2005, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa….
8 International Crisis Group, Popular Protests in North Africa and the Middle East (III): The Bahrain Revolt, April 6, 2011, accessed December 4, 2011, 4-5, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/files/middle%20east%20north%20africa….
9 Joost Hilterman, and Kelly McEvers, "Barricaded in Bahrain," The New York Review of Books (blog), December 27, 2011, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/dec/27/barricaded-bahrain/.
10 Simon Henderson, Iran's Shadow over Reform in Bahrain (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2010), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3347.
12 F.Gregory Gause, The International Politics of the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 33.
13 Husain Al-Baharna, "The Fact-Finding Mission of the United Nations Secretary-General and the Settlement of the Bahrain-Iran Dispute, May 1970," International and Comparative Law Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1973): 541.
15 Frederick Wehrey, Theodore W. Karasik, and Alireza Nader, Saudi-Iranian Relations, 54.
16 Abdullah Al Shayji, "Time for GCC to Think Big," accessed April 30, 2012, http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/time-for-gcc-to-think-big-1.101….
17 Ibid., 19.
18 Ibid., 21-2.
19 Ibid., 54.
20 Henderson, "Iran's Shadow over Reform."
21 Shahram Chubin, "Iran and Regional Security in the Persian Gulf," Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 34, no. 3 (1992): 62-80.
22 Henderson, "Iran's Shadow over Reform."
23 Hasan T. Alhasan, "The Role of Iran in the Failed Coup of 1981: The IFLB in Bahrain," Middle East Journal 65, no. 4 (2011), 603.
24 Raymond Hinnebusch, The International Politics of the Middle East (Manchester University Press, 2003), 194.
25 S.Blank, L.E Grinter, J.W. Klingaman, et al., Low Intensity Conflict in the Third World (Air University Press, 1988), 8.
26 Ibid., 9.
27 Alhasan, "The Role of Iran," 604.
28 Ibid., 605.
29 Toby Jones, "Rebellion on the Saudi Periphery: Modernity, Marginalisation and the Shia Uprising of 1979," International Journal of Middle East Studies 38, no. 2 (2006): 215.
30 Shmuel Bar, Iranian Terrorist Policy and "Export of Revolution," 17, http://www.herzliyaconference.org/_Uploads/2903Iranian.pdf.
31 Hamad Al Khalifa changed the title of the state from "State of Bahrain" to "Kingdom of Bahrain" in 2002, also changing the title of the ruler from Emir to King, although it is possible to trace political dissatisfaction much earlier than that.
32 For greater discussion of this, see IGC 2011: 2-4.
33 Toby Matthieson, Battling over the Legacy of Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout, accessed February 14, 2012, http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/13/battling_over_the_leg….
34 Michelle Dunne, The Deep Roots of Bahrain's Unrest (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2011).
35 International Crisis Group 2011, Bahrain's Sectarian Challenge: 6.
37 Simon Henderson, "State of Emergency," Foreign Policy, June 7, 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/06/07/state_of_emergency.
38 International Crisis Group, Popular Protests in North Africa.
39 Hilterman and McEvers, "Barricade in Bahrain."
40 Henderson, Saudi Arabia's Fears for Bahrain.
41 Mehdi Khalaji, Iran's Policy Confusion about Bahrain (Washington Institute for Peace, 2011), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3376.
44 Simon Henderson, Riot Report Will Force Bahrain to Choose a Direction (Washington Instiute for Peace, 2011), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3424.
45 Mahmoud Cherif Bassioun, Nigel Rodley, Badria Al-Awadh, Philippe Kirsch, and Mahnoush H. Arsanjani, Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (Manama, Bahrain: Bahrain Independent Commission and Inquiry, 2011), http://www.bici.org.bh/BICIreportEN.pdf.
46 Hilterman and McEvers, "Barricade in Bahrain."
47 Bassiouni, Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 219.
49 Hilterman and McEvers, "Barricade in Bahrain."
50 Michael Slackman, "The Proxy Battle in Bahrain," New York Times, March 20, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/weekinreview/20proxy.html?pagewanted=….
52 Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East (IB Taurus, 2012).
54 Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, "Domestic Politics and Territorial Disputes in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula," Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 35 no. 4 (1993): 19.
55 Henderson, Saudi Arabia's Fears for Bahrain.
56 F. Gregory Gause, "Is Saudi Arabia Really Counter-Revolutionary?" Pomeps Briefings, Arab Uprisings: The Saudi Counter Revolution, September 8, 2011, http://www.pomeps.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/POMEPS_BriefBooklet5_S….
57 Joseph Nevo, "Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia," Middle Eastern Studies 34, no. 3 (1998), 50.
58 Mehdi Khalaji, Iran's Policy Confusion about Bahrain (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2011), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3376.
60 Lamine Ghanmi, "Morocco Cuts Ties with Iran over Bahrain," Reuters, March 7, 2009, http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE52601D20090307.
61 Khalaji, Iran's Policy Confusion.
62 International Crisis Group, Popular Protests in North Africa.
63 Khalaji, Iran's Policy Confusion.
64 Shahram Chubin, "Iran's Power in Context," Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 51, no. 1 (2009): 167.
65 Simon Henderson, A Testing Weekend in Bahrain (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2012), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC06.php?CID=1790.
66 Internetional Crisis Group, Popular Protests in North Africa.
67 Henderson, Saudi Arabia's Fears for Bahrain.