The American Kafir

2011/02/25

Nearing Talks in Bahrain, Contrary to Iranian Reports

Filed under: Ahmadinejad, Bahrain, Iran, Protests, Shi'ite, Sunni — - @ 5:28 pm

Source Link:Stratfor

February 25, 2011 | 2031 GMT
Nearing Talks in Bahrain, Contrary to Iranian Reports
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Bahraini Shiite anti-government protesters march toward Manama’s Pearl Square on Feb. 25

Summary

Iran’s state-run media issued false reports of a crackdown on protesters in Bahrain’s Pearl Square, likely with the intention of increasing Sunni-Shiite tensions and halting the movement toward talks between the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa regime and the mainly Shiite protesters. Though it is unlikely this move will work as Tehran hopes, Iran’s leverage with Bahrain’s Shiite population remains a challenge for King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s regime, and for another state concerned about agitation with its Shiite minority: Saudi Arabia.

Analysis

Reports have circulated in Iranian state-run media that Bahrain deployed soldiers early Feb. 25 to disperse the protesters gathered in Manama’s Pearl Square. These reports are false, as photos from the scene show people still camping out in Pearl Square well into the afternoon, and they would run counter to the recent flow of developments, which indicate that the Bahraini regime and opposition groups are nearing negotiations.

Tehran does not want to see the current standoff end, but if the prospective negotiations do proceed, it hopes to weaken the Bahraini regime’s hand as much as possible. This report alone is unlikely to have its intended effect of increasing Sunni-Shiite tensions (Bahrain’s 70 percent Shia population is ruled by a Sunni family), but this does not mean Iran has lost its ability to influence Shiite unrest in Bahrain over the longer term. This is a central worry for Bahrain’s neighbor to the west, Saudi Arabia, which has its own Shiite minority it is concerned about inflaming.

The Bahraini regime has been trying to reach out to opposition groups since King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa assigned Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to start a dialogue. Salman ordered the withdrawal of Bahraini troops from the streets Feb. 19 and announced that peaceful demonstrations would be tolerated. There have been protesters camping in Pearl Square since then, though their numbers have not been as high as they were at their peak. In the meantime, Hamad pardoned hundreds of Shiite prisoners, including 25 key figures, which was the opposition movement’s key condition before they would join talks with the government. Bahrain also announced that one of the pardoned politicians who has been in exile, prominent opposition figure Hassan Meshaima, who leads the Haq movement (a Shiite group that split from the main Shiite bloc Al Wefaq in 2006 after the latter decided to participate in parliamentary elections), will not be arrested when he returns to Bahrain.

The opposition responded to the regime’s steps positively. After internal negotiations, seven opposition groups, including Al Wefaq and the Sunni left-wing secularist Waad Party, presented their demands to the government and the al-Khalifa royal family on Feb. 23. (After the demands were issued, Bahrain’s largest trade union, General Federation for Bahrain Trade Unions, announced it would join the opposition Feb. 24.) These demands include the resignation of the government, formation of a new national unity government, the release of all political prisoners, an impartial investigation into the deaths of protesters and electoral reform. Opposition groups notably did not demand overthrow of the al-Khalifa family — though some protesters on the street have called for this — and said they want a “real constitutional monarchy.” Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said Feb. 24, “Everything can be brought to the [negotiating] table,” when asked if changes to the Cabinet were possible. The United States also threw its support behind the initiative by announcing that U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon had spoken with Salman on Feb. 24 and expressed strong support for his dialogue initiative.

Given the conciliatory steps from both the Bahraini regime and opposition, negotiations are likely to begin sooner rather than later. The false Iranian media allegations of a raid in Pearl Square are not an accident in this context. The emphasis on the military being deployed is notable since troop deployment is under the authority of Salman (who is also deputy supreme commander of the Bahrain Defense Force), who will lead the negotiations on behalf of the regime, and any military intervention — rather than a police intervention — would be that much more likely to derail negotiations. (The police are controlled by Prince Salman’s rival, Prime Minister ?Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, and police forces already stormed Pearl Square on Feb. 17; Khalifa has taken a hard line against the opposition, and for Salman to take an equally hard line would limit his leverage in Bahrain’s internal power struggle. Khalifa’s resignation will be one of the key demands of the opposition during the talks.

Tehran wants to see the stalemate between the regime and opposition prolonged in order to push Shiite demands further which Tehran hopes may encourage Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite population to agitate for change. That said, Bahraini opposition groups can still drag their feet for negotiations to extract greater concessions from the regime. Though Iran is not pleased with Bahrain’s ability to deal with the unrest and move toward talks on an accommodation in a relatively short time, this does not mean that it has lost its opportunity. Iran will still try to influence the Shiite majority Bahrain during and after the negotiations to leverage itself against its main rival in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia.

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