Posted AT 4:20 AM EST ON 12/02/07
Tiny Bahrain firmly in Tehran's orbit
Iran possesses enormous influence among Bahrain's Shia majority
From Monday's Globe and Mail
AL-DAIH, BAHRAIN — They're unarmed, but march like an army though the
streets of this tiny country -- tens of thousands of black-clad men
beating their chests in unison to a slow, mournful rhythm. With each
violent thump of their fists, they recall the first in a long line of
grievances Shia Muslims hold against their Sunni brethren.
Oblivious to the drizzling rain, an estimated 250,000 marchers, a
third of all the people who live on this Persian Gulf island, hit
themselves and cry the name of Imam Hussein, the Shia leader who fell
under Sunni swords in the year 680.
In Bahrain, the annual Ashura festival of mourning is part religious
ceremony, part demonstration of political power. With sectarian
tensions high across the region, it's a reminder to Bahrain's elites
that, although the Shiites are poor and disenfranchised, they dwarf
the ruling Sunnis in number, and hold an angry grudge.
Situated across the Persian Gulf from Iran, Bahrain's Sunni rulers are
as sensitive as anyone in the region to the apparent extraterritorial
aspirations of Iran's ayatollahs and their influence on the kingdom's
Shia majority. The precursors of today's royal family invaded from
neighbouring Qatar in 1780 and drove out the Persians. But Iran didn't
extinguish its claim to the island until 1970, and today, the Bahraini
government still perceives an existential threat emanating from
Iran is playing in many Middle East backyards, most notably in Iraq
(through the various Shia political parties and militias that take
their orders from Tehran), Lebanon (through the Iranian-funded
Hezbollah movement) and the Palestinian territories (through Hamas, a
Sunni group that turned to Iran for help when faced by a crippling
Western boycott). But it's tiny Bahrain where Iran arguably wields the
most influence, and where Tehran might first try to demonstrate its
new clout if a showdown with the United States and its Arab allies
Bahrain's predominantly Shia opposition, which tried to stage an
Iranian-style revolution in 1981, has been taking to the streets
frequently in recent months, emboldened by events in Iraq, where a
Shia majority has finally thrown off oppressive Sunni rule. But King
Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa and his coterie believe the Persians still
stand behind Bahrain's opposition and its calls for more democracy.
There's plenty of evidence here to support those fears. Photographs of
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his predecessor,
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomaini, adorn the walls of nearly every Shia home
on the island. Portraits of Lebanon's Hassan Nasrallah and the yellow
flags of Hezbollah are also popular. Both sides are well aware that
with the fall of Saddam Hussein, Bahrain is the only remaining country
where a Sunni minority governs a Shia majority.
"Wake up Sunnis!" reads one message that was sent to thousands of
Bahraini cellphones ahead of recent elections fought along sectarian
lines. "Don't be naive or your fate will be like the Iraqi Sunnis who
lost their rights and their lives."
The execution of Mr. Hussein at the end of last year, viewed by Sunnis
across the region as revenge-taking by a Shia lynch mob, provoked a
second round of such messages, many of which accused Bahrain's Shiites
of working for Iran.
The government regularly trots out the Iranian bogeyman to scare its
allies in Washington into easing calls for democratic reforms. A more
tangible Iran-headquartered group, calling itself the Islamic Front
for the Liberation of Bahrain, bombed a hotel in Manama, the capital,
Unnerved by Tehran's new swagger after the collapse of the U.S. plan
for Iraq and the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bahrain
recently joined five other Arab states in the Persian Gulf to announce
that, like Tehran, they would explore the idea of a peaceful nuclear
program. Egypt and Jordan, which are also predominantly Sunni and
uncomfortable with Iran's growing assertiveness, have also announced
they will look into their nuclear options.
Long-dormant tension between Sunnis and Shiites, unlocked by the
violence in Iraq, is exploding throughout the Middle East, from the
daily carnage in Baghdad to the dangerous sectarian standoff on the
streets of Beirut. Animosity is also high in the Sunni-ruled kingdoms
of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which have significant Shia minorities and
the terrifying example of Iraq just across the border, and in Yemen,
where clashes between government forces and Shia rebels have killed
dozens of people in recent weeks. Even in countries such as Jordan and
Egypt, which are overwhelmingly Sunni, governments have issued dire
warnings about the dangers of a "Shia crescent" stretching from
Bahrain and Iran, through Iraq and Shia-ruled Syria to Lebanon.
"Every state that is neighbouring Iraq is concerned about the growing
role of Iran. Every gain for Iran in Iraq lessens the influence of
[Sunni Arab] states in the region and in the world," said Mohammed
al-Masri, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic Studies at the
University of Jordan.
The real rift that governments are blurring, he said, isn't between
Sunnis and Shiites so much as it is between "moderate" states such as
Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as the secular Palestinian
Fatah movement, which favour accommodation with Israel and the United
States, and a Tehran-led rejectionist axis that also includes Syria,
Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
"The Arab states are confusing the Iranian threat with a Shiite
threat, even though they are very different issues," Dr. al-Masri
said. The biggest worry for these governments, he said, is that the
hard-line anti-Israel, anti-U.S. stand being taken by Iran will
resonate on the streets of Cairo, Amman and elsewhere.
As the panic about Tehran's rising influence spreads, it has been
accompanied by a dangerous spike in the volume of anti-Shia rhetoric
being spread by Sunni governments and their official clergy. Trapped
between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two theocratic states that are the
political and spiritual centres of their respective sects, and with
the example of Iraq just a few hundred kilometres to the north,
Bahrain increasingly looks like it could be the next trouble spot.
While Shiites are a minority within global Islam, making up an
estimated 15 per cent of the 1.4 billion Muslims, Bahrain is 70 per
cent Shiite -- but run by a Sunni royal family notorious for doling
out jobs and favours to other Sunnis while actively marginalizing the
Shia majority. Adding to the stakes, the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in
Bahrain, and would almost certainly be used in any American strike
against Iran's nuclear program.
"There's Iraq, emerging as a Shia power centre to the north, and Iran,
positioning itself as a regional hegemon, and the American efforts to
counter that. Bahrain is caught in the middle of all that,
exacerbating the very local Sunni-Shia dynamic," said Toby Jones, a
Persian Gulf expert who wrote a recent report on Bahrain's sectarian
divide for the International Crisis Group, a global think tank devoted
to conflict resolution. "The Bahraini government feels cornered. This
is a very hostile neighbourhood."
As tense as matters are inside Bahrain, Mr. Jones said, the country's
stability may be determined by what happens at the regional level. "If
Saudi Arabia continues to speak not only against Iran, but against its
own Shia population, then all bets are off. You could provoke your own
radicals, and you could see jihadism against the Shia community."
That, he predicted, would instigate a counteroffensive by Shia
radicals both inside and outside Iraq.
Bahrain's conflict is a peaceful one, other than the occasional
demonstration that a police force dominated by Sunnis and foreigners
puts down with rubber bullets and tear gas, but what it has in common
with Lebanon and Iraq is the sense that the long-downtrodden Shia
masses are rising up and demanding a greater share of power in their
"Every year, we are stronger," said Ali Abdulemam, a prominent Shia
dissident, as he watched the Ashura procession wind through the
streets of his hometown from behind dark sunglasses. "We have to be.
We know that if we show we are weak, we will have a problem with the
While Manama's nighttime skyline is lit up by skyscraper developments
and neon signs advertising Western chain restaurants, the muddy
alleyways of al-Daih are just a few short kilometres away. Ronald
McDonald and the glowing guitar of the Hard Rock Cafe give way here to
spray-painted portraits of Shia religious leaders and the dozens of
"martyrs" who died during what locals call the intifada, an uprising
against the Sunni regime that often resulted in violence in the 1990s.
While Bahrain's Shiites say their allegiance to Iran is religious,
rather than political, there's little question that Iran would gain a
friend, and the United States and Saudi Arabia would lose one, if the
Shia opposition were ever to come to power here.
The extent to which the government is apparently willing to go in
order to prevent that from happening was exposed last year when an
adviser to the royal family broke ranks and accused the government of
a plot against the Shiites.
Known as "Bandargate," the scandal was named after Salah al-Bandar,
the whistleblower who released hundreds of pages of documents that
appear to outline a massive government effort to keep the Shiites
politically marginalized, while tampering with the island's
demographics to increase the Sunni share of the population.
The government denied the accusations and expelled Mr. al-Bandar, a
Sudanese Sunni. But a paper trail, including signed cheques apparently
paid out to anti-Shia figures, suggests that there was at least some
official effort to spy on Shiites, to guarantee a Sunni majority in
the recent parliamentary elections and to pay Shiites willing to
convert to Sunni Islam.
The election gerrymandering seemed to work. Despite their wide popular
majority, Shia parties won just 17 of 40 seats in the lower house of
parliament. Sunnis also hold a comfortable majority in the upper
house, which is appointed by King Hamad.
"Each and every Shiite here worries about their future. Now they know
there is a plan, directed by the highest person in the country, the
King, to marginalize the Shiites," said Nabeel Rajab, vice-president
of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, shaking his head at the
government's willingness to deal with Sunni radicals before Shia
And it was all done in the name of combatting Iran. "The regional
situation has really served the royal family here. They're always
threatening the West and telling the Americans that the Shiites are
their enemies and the allies of Iran," Mr. Rajab said. "There is an
anti-Shiite movement in the whole region, because of what's happening
The Ashura march passed without incident, but later that night, the
unrest swelled again, as 200 Shia youths clashed with police following
the sentencing of two opposition activists to six months and one year
in prison, respectively, for distributing leaflets calling on
Bahrainis to boycott the recent elections.
"We didn't even hear what he said. [The trial and sentencing] only
took eight seconds," said a bewildered Mohammed Saeed al-Sahlawi, the
35-year-old dentist who got the longer sentence. As he stood in the
prisoner's box being comforted by his father and supporters, the Shia
crowd outside the courtroom broke into a chant of, "You say this is
freedom, but if we speak our minds, you open your jails."
Two days later, the youths were on the streets again, following
another round of arrests, this time targeting two Shia political
leaders and the head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. The
protesters burned tires and threw stones until the police broke up the
demonstration with rubber bullets and tear gas.
To those trying to bridge the sectarian divide, the country seems
caught in a worrying downward spiral.
Mahmoud al-Yousif, a Shia information-technology specialist and
popular blogger who recently launched a campaign called Just Bahraini
in hopes of getting Bahrainis to leave their sectarian camps and find
the middle ground, sports a button on his blazer that reads "No Shia,
no Sunni. Just Bahraini!" It's a message of peace that he hoped the
government would embrace and the fractious country would rally around.
Instead, he found himself hauled before a public prosecutor last week
on charges of insulting a member of the cabinet. After he was released
on bail, he posted a warning on his website that other bloggers should
remain anonymous if they intend to criticize the government.
Over cappuccino at one of Manama's myriad U.S.-style coffee shops, he
sighed that his government seems to be more interested in feeding the
Sunni-Shiite divide than in bridging it. "Their tactic is divide and
rule. They tell the Sunnis that all the privileges they've had for the
past century will disappear because the Shiites are going to rise and
take them. That way, the Sunnis and the Shiites won't rise up and
Mr. al-Yousif's broad face is quick to smile, and he is a hopeful
person by nature. But his optimism about his country's future drains
with his coffee the longer the conversation goes. "When you see
something in front of you that's about to explode, it's terrifying,"
he says, as he gets up to leave. "Especially when it's something you