A chain of events is beginning with far-reaching consequences. The first accounts say the Saudi contingent consists of 1000 troops with 150 armoured troop carriers and auxiliary vehicles. Bahrain TV showed the footage of what it called “advance units of the joint regional Peninsula Shield forces” in an indication that more forces are on their way. The Bahrain government has a defence pact on mutual security with GCC. Alongside Saudi Arabia, UAE also sent 500 troops. The Bahraini government said it requested for military help in view of “the unfortunate events that are shaking the security of the kingdom and terrorizing citizens and residents.” The Saudi government said it has “answered a request by Bahrain for support.”
The move followed violent clashes between Shi’ite protestors and the police. Demonstrators have barricaded the highway leading to the city centre and the main financial district and vigilante groups have appeared to guard neighbourhoods, as sectarian tensions arose between the Shi’ites who form 70 percent of the population and the Sunnis. The move by the Sunni ruler to bring in Sunni troops from other GCC states creates a dangerous situation. The Shi’ite opposition groups in a statement said, “We consider the entry of any soldier or military machinery into the Kingdom of Bahrain’s air, sea or land territories a blatant occupation. This real threat about the entry of Saudi and other Gulf forces into Bahrain to confront the defenceless Bahraini people puts them in real danger and threatens them with an undeclared war by armed troops.” Thousands of protestors are still camping out at the city’s Pearl Square.
The things to watch are US and Iranian reactions. The state department said in Washington: “We urge our GCC partners to show restraint and respect the rights of the people of Bahrain, and to act in a way that supports dialogue instead of undermining it.” Significantly, no criticism of the Saudi move. US defence secretary Robert Gates visited Manama Friday. Conceivably, Gates was in the loop on Bahrain government move on GCC intervention. The conclusion that can be drawn is that US priority is the Fifth Fleet (which is anchored in Bahrain), and democracy follows if at all way behind. Significantly, Bahrain government intensified the crackdown on protestors in the weekend soon after Gates left Manama.
Iran’s reaction also has been highly nuanced. MFA rhetorically ridiculed Gates’ visit to Manama but the reaction to the Saudi intervention has been on low-key at the level of the DG in the MFA in charge of Middle East and Persian Gulf, Amir-Abdollahian. This may be an initial reaction. However, he merely said the Saudi intervention can only make the situation more complicated. No warnings or threats or demands for Saudi withdrawal. Tehran doesn’t question the legality of the move, either, but instead underscores the political consequences. Iranian calculation will be to wait and watch as it has nothing to lose anyway; there is no question of an Iranian intervention in Bahrain. Iran will not want to confront GCC. These are traditional parameters of Iran’s regional policies. Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain remain problematic, while they are in good shape with Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. Iran works hard to keep up cordial ties with the GCC states. But Tehran has everything to gain politically if Saudi intervention triggers unrest among Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait or if the situation turns into a quagmire for Saudis in Bahrain. On the other hand, Tehran will not want the opprobrium of stirring up Shi’ite sectarian sentiments. Tehran’s propaganda is focused on the “Islamic awakening” of the Arab people. Sectarian divides at this point do not serve Iran’s interests as Tehran will be drawn into them as a partisan, which will diminish its regional clout. Again, Tehran apprehends that sectarian tensions in Bahrain suit the Sunni rulers in the Persian Gulf to rally their majority populations. Conceivably, US also has interest in deflecting the popular revolt for regime change. Above all, Iran is consistently inclined to behave like a “responsible” regional power, which augments the overall Iranian diplomacy on other fronts in its relationship with the West.
All in all, a complex set of equations is developing, which offers a moveable feast for any diplomatic observer studying the Middle Eastern politics.
Delhi will be in a state of high anxiety in the coming days. The prudent thing will be to issue advisories to Indian nationals to send back dependents home till the situation clarifies. That will ease the burden of any hurried evacuation that may become necessary if the situation aggravates. The most likely scenario is that the tensions in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen - “Shi’ite Triangle”, so to speak - will increasingly begin feeding into each other in the coming weeks (or months), which will be exacerbated by the “low-intensity strife” - so far, at least - in Oman and Kuwait.
Meanwhile, an intriguing template has appeared in the geopolitics: The US seems to be testing the water to deploy a highly reliable back channel to Tehran. The Jordanian government has announced that Jordanian king Abdullah will be willing to meet Mahmoud Ahmedinejad either in Amman or in Tehran to “discuss ways for bolstering bilateral ties on clear bases in such a manner that serves the interests of the two peoples, Islamic issues as well as security and stability in the region.” Bravo! The ties between Tehran and Amman are in a state of deep chill. Tehran considers Abdullah as an American lackey. On the other hand, Abdullah is the most favourite trouble shooter that Washington employs when need arises for undertaking delicate missions. Abdullah revels in such roles. His credentials are unmatchable: he talks and deals with Israel, survives solely due to US (and Saudi) support and he just loves the fact that Jordan has traditionally punched far above its weight in regional politics.
So, what is happening? Quite possibly, US is exploring the scope for having a “dialogue” with Ahmedinejad. Of course, US would have noticed that amidst the Middle East turmoil, Iranian behaviour on the whole has been very restrained and confined entirely to rhetoric. This would have encouraged US to probe the possibilities of a modus vivendi with Iran so that each side would have a measure of assured confidence as to what the other side is up to apropos the regional turmoil. Broadly speaking, US knows only too well that Iran is a stakeholder in regional stability and that Iran’s regional influence has vastly increased, whereas Israel faces regional isolation.
Of course, within the highly fractious Iranian regime, there are powerful cliques that will oppose any dialogue with Abdullah at this juncture and will condemn Ahmedinejad for his “betrayal”. They will be casting a wary eye that Ahmedinejad’s standing may strengthen if a US-Iran contact begins.No doubt, for an Iran watcher, this gives a rare opportunity to fathom the enigmatic personality of Ahmedinejad, his equations with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as the extent of his political clout to bulldoze his detractors and go ahead with his decision to meet Abdullah. So far, Ahmedinejad is facing some sharp sniping from the Majlis. How does the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps react? What about the religious establishment? These are valid questions. On earlier occasions, too, A’s “feelers” to the US (especially during his visits to New York and his initial favourable stance on exchange of refined uranium) have been scotched by the hardliners. Any sign of a “thaw” in US-Iran relations inevitably becomes the stuff of factional fights among cliques in Tehran - as in Washington, too. Therefore, if Ahmednejad does meet Abdullah finally, it becomes a major development, surely heralding a massive shift in the co-relation of forces in the region.
Let us remember that in Bahrain, US and Iranian interests intersect. We may expect both sides to do everything possible to ensure that no flashpoint arises. Abdullah’s mission seems to be in this direction. It is in moments such as this that we get a “close-up” on the variegated panorama of US-Iran standoff. India should draw important conclusions out of all this for the future trajectory of its relationship with Iran.