May 19, 2012
Fifteen months into their uprising, Bahrainis balk at both the proposed union with Riyadh and statements reviving the Iranian claim to their country.
Tensions are running high between the two coasts of the Persian Gulf.
The war of words pitting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain against Iran may be part of a regional struggle that is essentially over Syria rather than Bahrain. But Bahrain is its current focus, and it is the Bahraini people who are being made to pay the price.
The escalation was triggered by the announcement of Saudi Arabia’s plans to merge with Bahrain under the guise of forming a Gulf union, and fuelled by Iranian statements that were made in response.
Some of these went as far as reviving Iran’s former claim to Bahrain.
The conservative newspaper Kayhan, which is seen as speaking for supreme leader Ali Khamenei, ran an editorial Tuesday which maintained that "the Islamic Republic, as guarantor of the safety and territorial integrity of Iran, reserves the right to want the return of a separated province to the Islamic homeland." It claimed that "the Bahrainis consider themselves to be Iranians, and reports indicate that they are eager to return to Iran."
The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, had earlier remarked that if Bahrain were to unite with any other country, it should be with Iran and not Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Islamic Propagation Coordination Council urged Iranians to hold demonstrations in protest at "the American plan to annex Bahrain to Saudi Arabia."
This followed a statement by a group of Iranian MPs warning the Saudis that the anti-regime protests in Bahrain would extend to their territory if it the proposed union was set up.
The foreign ministry’s spokesman, Ramin Mahmanbarast, was more diplomatic, remarking that "the solution to the crisis in Bahrain lies in fulfilling the legitimate demands of the people."
Such statements provoked a flurry of angry Saudi, Bahraini and Gulf responses.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal had warned Iran -- at the conclusion of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh at which the planned union was discussed – that "it has no business, whatsoever, in what happens between the two countries, even if extends to union."
The Bahraini government for its part summoned the Iranian charge d’affaires to protest against his country’s "brazen interference" in its affairs.
It also upped the ante that by signalling that although no proclamation of the union with Saudi Arabia was made at the Riyadh gathering, one would be forthcoming ahead of the GCC’s next regular annual summit due to be held in Manama in December. The Bahraini king’s media advisor, Nabil al-Hamar, tweeted what he termed the "good news" that it would be formally established at special GCC summit to be convened in the Saudi capital.
Tensions with Iran have also been used by the Bahraini authorities to justify cracking down harder on the opposition. On Wednesday they published a list of 20 people they said were wanted for committing "terrorist crimes" against the security forces. The harassment and arrest of opposition activists has also been stepped up.
But how do the Bahraini people feel about Riyadh or Tehran’s perceived designs on their country? The responses of prominent Bahrainis quizzed by Al-Akhbar about the proposed union with Saudi Arabia and the Iranian reaction varied.
Liberal opposition activist Munira Fakhro drew a distinction between theory and practice as far as the former prospect is concerned.
Fakhro, who belongs to the left-leaning Waad political party, stressed that Bahrain has a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, not least because half the state’s revenues are generated by the income it earns from the Abu-Saafa oilfield which is jointly owned with Saudi Arabia. "We need each other," she said. "Our relationship is vital. We are not opposed to union with any Arab state, especially not a Gulf country."
However, she went on, in the case of Saudi Arabia, there are deeply held fears about the implications of merging with a country with sharply different norms of social behavior and standards of democracy and human rights. She said that while Bahrain’s majority Shia population have particular cause for alarm, especially in light of Saudi Arabia’s hostility to the pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, there is broader general concern about the setback which the proposed union could deal to human rights in Bahrain.
Any referendum on the union should therefore not "be confined to a yes or no choice, but should also be about the details," she said. "What will the fate of women be in the union? Will we also get Committees for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice ( the Saudi religious police)?" She said Waad was planning to make a detailed study of the proposal’s possible implications.
As for the Iranian statements implicitly staking a claim to Bahrain, Fakhro said Bahrainis were united in opposing any such notion, and remarks like Larijani’s were unacceptable. "If we want go back to history, the Arabs also occupied Iran. We belong to the Gulf, and we want strong relations with the Iranians. If they have a problem with the UAE they should go solve it at The Hague," she said, adding that Iranian-Saudi tensions were impacting on the domestic situation in Bahrain.
A different take was provided by lawyer and former MP Farid Rafie, who the opposition sees as a moderate pro-regime loyalist, but who casts himself as a liberal and anti-sectarian, and makes a point of saying - in a sign of how deep fears of sectarian polarization have become—that although he is Sunni his wife is Shia.
He voiced enthusiasm for the proposed union. "I believe in Arab nationalism, and this union is a step toward uniting the Arab states," he said, adding that it would be part of a broader process of the GCC developing into confederation. But he said consultations about the form it would take are still underway, and people would have a chance to vote on it in a referendum.
Rafie was dismissive of the hostility to the proposal voiced by opposition groups, charging that they were acting on orders from Tehran, and saying that the idea itself was partly a reaction to the "Iranian threat" to Bahrain. While opposition groups fault Saudi Arabia for leading the GCC force which deployed in Bahrain to support the government when it cracked down on the protest movement , Rafie said the force "did not interfere in Bahraini affairs, and Saudi Arabia provided only part of the force and not all of it. It is not the opposition that is fearful because of Saudi Arabia’s stance on Bahrain, but Iran and its dreams."
He also charged that the Bahraini opposition’s rejection of Iranian claims to the country is insincere. "Their deeds differ from their words. Events on the ground confirm this. Part of the opposition coordinates with Iran through contacts in Iraq, Beirut and Tehran," he said.
"We (Bahrainis) have legitimate demands, we have martyrs, detainees, poverty and unemployment, but we will not allow any extremist religious current to hide behind these demands to achieve its aims," he said. Rafie concurred that developments in Bahrain had led to a rise in sectarian extremism and bigotry and divided the country’s liberals.
Despite Rafie’s depiction of the opposition, former MP Ali al-Aswad of the main opposition Wefaq society, expressed outrage at the Kayhan article claiming that Bahrainis see themselves as Iranians longing to be united with their putative motherland.
"This is nonsense. It is irresponsible and perverse. There is no talk of this kind whatsoever in Bahrain," he said.
"As far as we are concerned, we are as opposed to talk of Bahrain being annexed by Iran as to talk of being annexed by Saudi Arabia." Bahrain is an Arab, independent and sovereign state, he stressed. "As an opposition party we do not object any kind of union provided there is a referendum on it. But we do object specifically to a union with Saudi Arabia."
Aswad said the Saudi-Iranian row was hurting the Bahraini people "because it is diverting attention from people’s rightful demands."
He said while Iranian claims impugning Bahrain’s Arab identity were unacceptable, " Iran is a friendly country and we want it to stay that way. If we were to accept this talk, we would accept the Saudi talk. I reject this, as did my ancestors and will my children."
But while "there are irresponsible voices in Iran, there are also responsible voices there. The region is going through a dangerous phase, and does not need maverick voices."
As for the proposed union with Saudi Arabia, Aswad opined: "It is a failure of a venture. Saudi Arabia has nothing to gain from it. It came up with it to appease the Salafi current in Bahrain. The main idea behind it is to remove the crown prince, Salman, from power."
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.