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War of words

April 15, 2011

Iran's support for the Shiite-driven protests in Bahrain has inflamed tensions between Tehran and its Arab Gulf neighbors, most of which are ruled by Sunni royal families, and raised the prospect of a regional conflict.

Anti-government protesters in Bahrain
Tehran's backing for Bahraini protesters has raised hackles among Gulf nationsImage: AP

As popular unrest sweeps from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, the upheavals have fuelled regional tensions with political and sectarian overtones.

In Bahrain, an archipelago with just over one million people, the government has cracked down hard on political protests. They began in mid-February when mostly Shiite demonstrators took to the streets to demand greater political and social rights.

Like most Gulf states, Bahrain's royal family is Sunni. But more than 65 percent of the population is Shiite - like in Iran. The Shiite majority has long complained of discrimination in politics, jobs and the economy.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iranian President Ahmadinejad has fueled tensions with Gulf nationsImage: AP

Tehran has strongly condemned the crackdown by Bahrain's ruling al Khalifa family rulers and has thrown its weight behind the protesters.

Conservative Shiite spiritual leaders in Iran have gone even further and openly urged support for Bahraini demonstrators.

"All Islamic intellectuals are now called upon to act. All Islamic countries, as long as they're not themselves involved in the crime, bear responsibility to support the Bahrainis in their fight," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati in Tehran said recently during a sermon at Friday prayers.

A war of words

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates - have slammed Iran and accused it of meddling in the internal affairs of Bahrain.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has rebuffed the allegations, calling them baseless and instead blamed the US for forcing the Gulf States to adopt an anti-Iran position.

In a recent speech, Ahmadinejad railed against the US and vowed that a new Mideast would emerge in the near future, free of American dominance and stooges.

Iran's war of words has rattled the ruling Sunni royal families in the Gulf states, not least because it’s the largest country in the region. Iran has twice the number of inhabitants of the six GCC states put together.

Iran sees itself as a regional heavyweight and presents itself as a protector of its fellow Shiites in Bahrain.

Mehrdad Khansari, an analyst at the London-based Institute of Middle East studies, says Iran has for decades sought more clout in the region, triggering fears among Gulf nations.

"The Gulf states feel threatened by Iran. This position hasn't changed in the past 30 years," Khansari told Deutsche Welle. "That's largely because Iran has always tried to fuel unrest by exploiting the Shiite minorities in the Gulf states."

US worried about Iranian role

Reacting to the uprising among Shiite opposition members in Bahrain, the Gulf Cooperation Council sent in more than 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops to Bahrain to back the ruling royal family and help suppress protests.

That sparked an angry reaction in Tehran with 200 of 286 parliamentarians condemning the move and reasserting support for the Shiite protesters in Bahrain. Their criticism was mainly targeted at Saudi Arabia, the leading power in the GCC.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia enjoys close ties with the USImage: AP

Analysts point out that Iran has always considered Saudi Arabia as a powerful opponent in the region. The Saudi royal family has strong links with the US and commands influence among the Sunni rulers in the Gulf.

Hassan Shariatmadari, the son of an Iranian Shiite Ayatollah, is highly critical of the Iranian regime and lives in exile in Hamburg. He says Tehran's stance in the current standoff is a direct provocation and warns of possible consequences.

"We should not forget that one of the most important US air and naval bases in the region is in Bahrain," Shariatmadari told Deutsche Welle. "If Iran actively interferes in the internal affairs of the region, it could lead to US intervention. I believe that some Arabs even hope that the Americans will be dragged into a conflict with Iran."

But that's unlikely to happen. The US has voiced concerns about Iran's role in the Bahraini protests. After a recent meeting with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tehran was destabilizing the region.

Experts fear that the next hotspot in the region could be Saudi Arabia where the Shiite minority could demand more rights - with Iran's backing.

Author: Shabnam Nourian (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge