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Tug of War in Middle East – Iran and Saudi Arabia

March 15, 2011

The recent intervention by Saudi Arabia in Bahrain has complicated things in the Middle East.  There have been uprisings in the Middle East that have seen two dictators having to abdicate their fiefdom and flee their countries. Tunisia and Egypt have seen Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak flee their countries. What started in Tunisia and Egypt has now spread to other parts of the Arab world and there are demonstrations in most Arab capitals, including in Manama, Bahrain, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Sanaa in Yemen. The fiercest fighting however is in Libya and there is a civil war like situation there. The rebels are fighting with their backs to the wall and have control of Benghazi. They are looking at the west for intervention but any such military forays into Libya seem remote as they are spread thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. The West does not want to over stretch their resources and commit to a situation that seems complicated as it were.

The recent migration from Tunisia into Italy and other European nations has the west alarmed and they are not sure they would like to encourage any more destabilization in the region. They are also not sure that any such change in power structure will necessarily lead to a stable, democratic alternative.

Saudi Arabian troops in Bahrain

But winds of change have swept the region and that is one fact that is hard to ignore. Change from tyranny and oppression is always welcome. But change for reasons other than to realize the voice of the people can be counterproductive.  Besides those that are calling for change do not have an alternative in mind. Whatever alternative that they might have to offer may be as absolutist as the one they are fighting against. The Islamic idea of an ideal state is that of a benevolent autocrat – a Caliphate. What is present in most Arab states is some form of Caliphate only. They may or may not have the blue blood line but most autocrats have been around long enough to have an aura around them. The Bahrain royal family is no different. Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa the Sunni monarch of Bahrain has been the king since 2002. The al Khalifa family has been ruling Bahrain for a very long time. The fact is that the Bahrain monarch is a Sunni while the majority of the population is Shia or Shiite. The people of Bahrain feel that the Shiites have had it rough and they are treated as second class citizens. AlKhalifa is still respected by ordinary Bahraini but his prime minister and uncle is abhorred and there is a call for him to quit. After repeated demonstrations the Sunnite Monarch ordered his troops to use force against demonstrators who regularly assemble at the famous Pearl Roundabout in Manama. Some protestors were killed but this did not subside the protests. As a last resort the Monarch called on Saudi Arabia to send forces to quell the uprising.

Bahrain has been complaining that Iran has been instigating the uprising in Bahrain. There was a perceptible threat to the Al Khalifa monarchy and they were not sure they could control this largely Shiite uprising. They called on their Sunnite brothers from Riyadh to help them out. This may quell the uprising for sometime but it will be hasty to conclude that the situation in Bahrain will come back to normal. In the meanwhile Tehran is watching the situation in Bahrain very closely. For all one may know this was Bahrain royalty’s way of avoiding an invasion from Iran. The popular Shiite protests could have encouraged Tehran to make a preemptive strike at Bahrain and that would have been strategically a master stroke from Tehran’s point of view.

Bahrain is crucial from West’s point of view as they have been a reliable ally for a long time. American Navy’s Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. Any attack from Iran could have jeopardized American position in the region drastically. The US would have been drawn into a conflict they do not want. Washington’s claim that they did not know of impending Saudi intervention in Bahrain is hard to believe. Admiral Mike Mullen had visited Bahrain recently and he did take stock of the situation there. Saudi intervention without American knowledge is rather far fetched.

With Nouri al-Maliki as the prime minister of Iraq Baghdad is very much under control of the Shiites. Iran is finding this as something desirable from their strategic viewpoint. If the Americans were to vacate Iraq by the end of this year as initially planned then there is every chance that the Shiite leadership of Baghdad may venture into Kuwait again at some point of time as did Saddam Hussein in early nineties. Saudi Arabia would hate to see an expanded influence of Shiite Iran in the region. The Saudi intervention in Bahrain is to ensure that Iran does not spread its wings such that it begins to hurt them.

Saudi Arabia on its part is not too stable either. Billions of dollars of new social initiatives have been offered to the Saudi citizens. But there have been reports of demonstrations in Riyadh. Again the Sunnite population of around 10% in Saudi Arabia is said to be behind these demonstrations. However, this may not be true. There seems to be a more widespread dissension in Saudi Arabia and suggestions that these demonstrations are also sponsored by Tehran seem to be farfetched.

Saudi Arabia and  the Sunnite nations could counter by instigating an uprising in Syria where the ruling family is Shiite in a largely Sunnite country. There have hardly been any demonstrations in Damascus but it will surprise no one if there are voices of dissent raised in this crucial nation.

The tug of war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is between two faiths – two streams of Islam. While Sunnites are more in number the Shiites are present in most Islamic states and they cannot be discounted. Were the Americans to withdraw from Iraq that would embolden the Shiites as both Iran and Iraq will then have Shiites at the helm of affairs. Washington therefore realize that it will be imperative for them to make sure there is a regime change in Tehran before they can think of withdrawing from Iraq. Iran and Iraq together will be a force to reckon with and Bahrain may just fall to the two powers in the region. Tehran on its part would love to see the status quo change in Riyadh as the house of Saud has been at the helm for too long and is close to Washington. This tug of war can take an ugly turn. Not in the least as the three main Shiite nations, Iran, Iraq and Bahrain together account for a good proportion of known oil reserves in the Middle East. This is strategically crucial not only for the monarchies of the region but for the world at large as the energy sources are concentrated in the region.

The worst case scenario will be if the whole of the region plunges into a sectarian violence on ethnic lines. Saudi forays into Bahrain will not be taken lying down by Tehran. The way things are unfolding in the Middle East it should not surprise anyone that Libya has been allowed to sort out its affairs largely on its own. The West’s position is that they will deal with whosoever comes victorious. They know that they cannot jump into any and every conflict. However, a continuation of the Gadaffi reign may be a blow to the West.

One thing is for sure. The US may not be able to withdraw from Iraq in the coming few years. That will be handing over the region to Tehran on a platter that they will be loathe to do.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. sharma24 permalink*
    March 17, 2011 2:26 pm

    I agree that there is a sense of panic in the West regarding Iran’s nuclear program but Hillary Clinton is on record saying that it was not the plant in Bushehr but the one in Natanz that was the problem. A nuclear Iran is a threat even with a rudimentary missile program.

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