Last week’s incendiary comments on Bahrain by a senior Iranian journalist and advisor to the country’s leader has reignited debate on the Islamic Republic’s approach to the ongoing political crisis in the small Gulf state. Hossein Shariatmadari’s statement that Bahrain “belongs” to Iran and that Bahrainis regard themselves as a “separated” part of the Iranian homeland, is bound to touch off anxiety in the Kingdom and possibly further afield in the region.
However, Shariatmadari’s position is ultimately a minority view in Iran, as the majority of the establishment and the Iranian public have long come to terms with Bahraini independence. This happened as a result of a referendum in August 1971, the result of which was accepted by the late Shah of Iran.
Hence, instead of interpreting these remarks as a statement of intent, it is wiser to see them as evidence of growing Iranian frustration with developments inside the Kingdom. Bahrain, it seems, is one arena where Saudi Arabia appears to have the upper hand in the struggle with Iran for regional power.
Furthermore, tough statements on Bahrain by influential Iranians are indicative of a divide inside the establishment as to how to formulate and implement policy on the small state. Formal Iranian diplomatic centres, notably the foreign ministry, have largely come to terms with the status quo in Bahrain. In contrast, the powerful Revolutionary Guards are keen to make an impact on Bahrain’s domestic crisis.
Hossein Shariatmadari has form on Bahrain. Ten years ago, he made exactly the same incendiary remarks, eliciting a sharp rebuke from the Bahraini media. His views could be dismissed as those of a radical nationalist if it wasn’t for his important position in the Iranian media. As managing director of Kayhan, Shariatmadari is in charge of one of Iran’s oldest dailies.
Established 75 years ago, Kayhan is regarded as the country’s most conservative newspaper. Under Shariatmadari’s leadership it has drawn closer to the heart of political power, essentially reflecting the views and prejudices of the ruling clerics.
His proximity to Ayatollah Khamenei, to the extent that he is regarded as the leader’s “personal” representative at Kayhan, affords Shariatmadari additional influence. On issues of regional and foreign policy, his statements are monitored closely by Western intelligence services on the grounds that they at least partially reflect the position of Khamenei.
Thus, the focus of analysis should be on the timing of Shariatmadari’s statement, which was made against a backdrop of the apparently winning momentum of Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifah regime against local dissidents. This is mostly reflected in a relentless judicial crackdown against all forms of dissent, with the most recent case involving the jailing of ten protestors.
The judicial crackdown is unfolding in a wider political and strategic context, both of which favour the Al-Khalifah clan. The Bahraini authorities have successfully demolished Al-Wefaq, the country’s largest opposition group. Moreover, they have sidelined Bahrain’s leading Shia cleric, Shaikh Isa Qasim, by stripping him of citizenship, without apparently incurring significant political costs.
The wider context
The Bahraini ruling family’s successful crackdown on widespread calls for reform could not have happened without a convergence of interests between Saudi Arabia — the ruling family’s main protector — and leading Western nations, notably the United States and Britain. The latter, for example, is heavily involved in Bahrain’s security sector, both in terms of training and assisting in intelligence gathering, and is thus directly involved in countering Iranian influence in the country.
As for the US, the close military ties with Bahrain, as demonstrated by the tiny Gulf state’s hosting of the US Navy’s fifth fleet, translates to a seemingly perennial policy of supporting “stability” in the Kingdom, regardless of the political and human rights costs. Stability in this case amounts to support for the status quo, despite the occasional half-hearted lip service to calls for reform.
The confluence of these powerful interests has wrong-footed Iran’s usually deft and sophisticated diplomats. Specifically, Iranian diplomacy has failed to capitalise on the generally sympathetic view of the Islamic Republic held by Bahrain’s Shia-led opposition and the broader reform movement. Instead of going on the offensive – by, for instance, taking measures to strengthen calls for reform – the Iranian Foreign Ministry is often on the defensive trying to fend off accusations by the Bahraini authorities.
Iran’s policy failure on Bahrain is also a symptom of internal wrangling and divisions. Whilst the administration of President Hassan Rouhani appears to be resigned to the status quo in Bahrain, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is keen to intervene with a view to destabilising the Al-Khalifah clan.
The Bahraini authorities regularly announce the dismantling of “terrorist” cells with alleged ties to Iran. For their part, US officials also see an Iranian hand in the emergence of increasingly sophisticated militant networks on the margins of Bahrain’s mostly peaceful reform movement.
Leaving aside the truth of these allegations, it is clear that Iran has few viable options in Bahrain other than offering mostly rhetorical support to Bahraini reformists. This is a bitter blow, as any retreat on regional flashpoints automatically translates to a win for Saudi Arabia.
Thus, Bahrain represents a rare development, namely a successful Saudi regional policy. This success, though, has far less to do with Saudi policy prowess than the fact that, for reasons of their own, the US and Britain are firmly wedded to the status quo in Bahrain.