The American Kafir

2011/03/17

Iran Contemplates Its Next Move

Filed under: Bahrain, Iran, National Security, Protests, Saudi Arabia, Shi'ite, Sunni — - @ 9:34 am

Source Link: Stratfor

On a day when there was no shortage of significant geopolitical events from Libya to Japan to Bahrain, STRATFOR continued to forecast the importance of Iran’s historic opportunity to remake the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region.

As daylight broke in Bahrain on Wednesday morning, Bahraini security forces, reinforced by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council Joint Peninsula Shield Force mission, cleared protesters from Manama’s Pearl Square. Forces used the usual volleys of tear gas on the crowds, but this time they also used live ammunition, leaving at least four demonstrators dead as black smoke hovered over the tent city at the square, which had gone up in flames. The crackdown included the Bahrain Financial Harbor and the Salmaniya Hospital, and also left two Bahraini security force members dead. By 4 p.m., when a curfew went into effect, Wednesday was the most violent day since the uprising in this small island nation began in mid-February.

The fact that Saudi troops were involved only added to the anger felt by all sectors of the opposition. While the al-Khalifa (the Sunni minority) regime may have indeed requested the help, the protesters (predominately composed of Bahrain’s Shiite majority) did not, and view this as a foreign invasion. From the hard-line Shiite Coalition for a Republic, to the more moderate, Shiite mainstream opposition coalition led by Al Wefaq, the opposition was unified in condemnation of the security force methods. If ever there was an opportunity for the two Shiite camps in Bahrain to patch things up, this was it. But it became clear that a split remained when an Al Wefaq official released a statement that attempted to disassociate the movement from the demonstrations by denying it had called for further protests, and then urged its followers to stay home for their safety.

The major driver behind the GCC deployment was to counter Iran’s rising influence in the Persian Gulf. Tehran sees an opportunity to build on its successes in Iraq and shift the balance of power in eastern Arabia to favor the Shia. Iran’s best-case scenario in Bahrain is for the complete overthrow of the Sunni monarchy, and it’s focused primarily on that possibility. But that is not to say Iranians are not meddling elsewhere at the same time.

Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-dominated Eastern province is right across the causeway from Bahrain. The Eastern province also happens to be where the bulk of the Saudi kingdom’s oil fields are located, adding even more significance to the fact that there is a simmering protest movement there. It hasn’t led to much so far; last Friday’s “Day of Rage” was a rather modest affair compared to some of the other Friday prayer protests we’ve seen in the Arab world in recent months. But it has the Saudi regime on edge nonetheless, and no doubt played a factor in Riyadh’s decision to send troops to Bahrain.?

Iran does not have as much room to maneuver operationally in Saudi Arabia as it does in Bahrain, but that doesn’t mean Tehran hasn’t been trying. Indeed, one of the big reasons that Bahrain is such a critical proxy battleground is because of the potential for contagion to spread to the Arabian Peninsula should a revolution occur there. A few hundred protesters marching in Qatif and al-Hasa, the Saudis fear, could quickly transform into a few thousand. That is a scenario that the Saudi royals want to avoid at all costs, and so are resorting to extraordinary measures to clamp down in Bahrain, where key Shiite opposition figures (some of whom are known for their close ties to Tehran) are reportedly being arrested.

Iranians are much more comfortable in Iraq. Babylon is Persia’s true historic rival, and the competition between these two states long predates the emergence of Islam. The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War was the most recent engagement between the two, and drove home (once again) in Tehran just how large a strategic threat Iraq is for Iran. As a result, the Iranians spent years trying to build up their contacts among the Iraqi Shia, who were living under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Developing political, business, religious and militant links with the Iraqi majority was all part of an Iranian strategy that was built around waiting to seize the opportunity to rid Iraq of Sunni domination and establish a Shiite stronghold in the heart of the Arab world. That opportunity presented itself in 2003, when the United States toppled Saddam. Eight years later, and the Iranians are ready and waiting to fill a vacuum left by the United States once it completes its scheduled withdrawal by summer’s end.

With a need to sustain the momentum that it has built in the Bahrain conflict, which was branded in part as an instance of U.S. interference, Iran is looking for other proxy battlegrounds to raise Shiite ire. Iraq is one arena in the Persian Gulf region where Iran has considerable room to maneuver. On Wednesday, for example, an estimated 2,000 followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held demonstrations in Basra and Baghdad in solidarity with the Bahraini Shia, who were seen as being attacked by “Wahabis,” as they view them, from Iran’s key rival, Saudi Arabia.

But there is still a cost-benefit analysis that Iran would have to make in deciding to meddle in Iraq on a significant level. The United States is not oriented to maintain a sufficient blocking force against Iran, and does not have the force structure in the region to effectively counter-balance the Iranians at a time when the Sunni Arab regimes are feeling under siege. The more threatening the Iranians make themselves out to be, particularly in Iraq, the more likely the United States is to reconsider its withdrawal plans and focus more heavily on militarily blocking Iran from further upsetting the regional balance of power. Tehran is thus left juggling between not doing enough (and therefore not sending the intended message to Washington and Riyadh that it is a powerful force in the region), and doing too much (which would risk forcing the Americans to stay in Iraq for longer than it had planned).

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