The American Kafir

2011/03/09

Bahrain’s Shiite Split

Filed under: Bahrain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Shi'ite, Sunni — - @ 1:38 pm

Source Link:Stratfor

A recently formed Bahraini Shiite opposition coalition issued a joint statement Tuesday in which it vowed to push for the creation of a republic in Bahrain. As Bahrain has been governed by the al-Khalifa Sunni monarchy for more than two centuries, this is quite a bold aspiration, and eclipses the demands issued by the protest movement thus far. Until now, the predominately Shiite protesters have called for the resignation of the government and other political reforms, but not outright regime change.

The coalition, dubbed the “Coalition for a Republic,” is made up of three Shiite groups: the Haq Movement, the Wafa Movement and the lesser-known London-based Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement. It does not include the more moderate Al Wefaq Movement, which is significant. Al Wefaq is not only the leading Shiite opposition party (it won 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house during the 2006 elections, though it walked out in protest after the crackdown on demonstrators in February), it also has been the leading player in the opposition coalition that the government has sought to engage for the past several weeks. Though the protesters on the streets have proven that they are not all Al Wefaq followers (many are devoted supporters of the Haq Movement’s founder, Hassan Mushaima), it is still widely believed that Al Wefaq has more support with Bahrain’s Shia.

There is now an open split in the Bahraini Shiite community, with one side (led by Al Wefaq) continuing with calls for Bahrain’s prime minister to step down and for the Sunni monarchy to grant the majority Shiite population a greater share of political power, and the other (led by Haq and Wafa) calling for a complete toppling of the monarchy.

The trait that the Haq and Wafa factions have in common is that they are likely both operating under varying levels of influence from Iran, which is the object of immense suspicion these days in Manama’s royal court (not to mention Riyadh’s). As the protector of Shia throughout the Persian Gulf region, Tehran has an interest in fomenting instability wherever a significant Shiite population exists in a country run by Sunnis. Bahrain, situated in the Persian Gulf just off the coast of Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, fits the bill, as roughly 70 percent of its residents are Shia. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Bahraini regime has lived in a constant state of unease in relation to its eastern neighbor. But the presence of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet is a nice reminder to Tehran that Bahrain has friends in high places.

Though there is no explicit evidence that Iran is behind the creation of this new hard-line Shiite coalition, Tehran is known to have ties to its leader, Mushaima, while the founder and leader of Wafa, Abdulwahab Hussein, is also known for his more extreme viewpoints. The emergence of the “Coalition for a Republic” gives Tehran an additional tool with which it can pressure the al-Khalifa regime, one that differs somewhat from that of the more moderate Al Wefaq.

It would be presumptuous to believe that Iran has total influence over every Shiite opposition group throughout the region. That said, Iran has learned over the years how to effectively play the divisions within these Shiite camps to its advantage, thereby multiplying its options and acting as a spoiler to rival countries with competing interests. This has been exemplified in Iraq, where Iran has a relationship with myriad Shiite actors, from more independent-minded nationalists like Muqtada al-Sadr to more traditional Iranian allies like Ammar al-Hakim. There is a lot of utility in maintaining influence over multiple factions of dissent in a neighboring country, which leads STRATFOR to believe that the creation of this new coalition may be the first signs of a (likely milder) version of the “Iraqization” of the Bahraini Shia. Mushaima (or perhaps eventually Hussein) would play a similar role to al-Sadr; Al Wefaq would mimic the role of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

While the existence of two competing Shiite groups allows Iran more tools with which to influence the events in Bahrain, a split in the Shiite opposition also allows the al-Khalifas (and by extension, the Saudis) an opportunity to try to weaken the protest movement. Al Wefaq will play a central role in this strategy to have a decent chance of success. Though Al Wefaq could always decide that it would rather unite with those calling for an overthrow of the regime, it proved in its decision not to boycott the 2006 parliamentary elections that it is willing to sacrifice some of its principles if it means advancing its political goals.

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