March 19, 2011 | 0000 GMT
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Bahraini Shiite demonstrators carry the coffin of a killed fellow protester on the outskirts of Manama on March 18
March 18 was to be a test of the strength of Iran’s covert destabilization campaign in the Persian Gulf region, as it provided the first Friday prayers following the decision by Saudi Arabia to send troops into Bahrain with the blessing of the al-Khalifa regime. The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) Peninsula Shield Force entered the country March 14, representing a sharp escalation of the long-running Saudi-Iranian competition that for the past month has been primarily fixated upon the small island nation just off the coast of eastern Saudi Arabia.
The decision to send troops to Bahrain — and the violence that ensued shortly thereafter — led to an outpouring of displays of solidarity with the country’s majority Shiite population from Shia across the region, from Iran, to Iraq, to eastern Saudi Arabia. The decision was also met by continued demonstrations in Bahrain. But while the scenes on the streets throughout the Shiite world were far from calm March 18, there was not a significant increase in unrest across the Persian Gulf region, either.
The majority of Bahraini citizens view the presence of Saudi troops as a Sunni invasion, and while the Bahraini Shiite opposition is internally fragmented, all have condemned the presence of GCC forces, especially after the March 15-16 violence. This could not only consolidate and galvanize the fractured opposition, but also create an opportunity for Iran to use its covert assets in Bahrain to exploit public outrage and further fuel sectarian tensions. This would both place pressure on the al-Khalifa regime and increase the chances for significant unrest to spread to other Shiite areas in the Persian Gulf — most importantly in eastern Saudi Arabia.
However, the March 18 demonstrations showed an opposition movement that has lost steam for the moment. Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, the main protest site in Bahrain, has been empty since a March 16 GCC crackdown. An 8 p.m.-4 a.m. curfew remains in effect in this part of the capital, and Bahraini troops are in control of the main hospital in Manama, anticipating that it may become a new rally point. At least two demonstrations took place in the greater Manama area on March 18: one in the village of Diraz, consisting of more than 1,000 people, and a smaller one in the village of Sitra. But none were on par with the ones seen earlier in the week.
One major reason for this was the arrest of hard-line Shiite opposition leaders on the morning of March 16, a day after the Bahraini government declared a state of emergency. Two of those arrested were the Haq Movement’s Hassan Mushaima and Wafa leader Abdulwahab Hussein, who together founded the Coalition for a Republic on March 7, which advocates the overthrow of the monarchy and is seen as having close links to Tehran. Meanwhile, leaders of the mainstream Shiite opposition movement Al Wefaq were not detained. Al Wefaq political leader Sheikh Ali Salman and spiritual leader Sheikh Isa Qassim have harshly condemned the regime’s use of violence, but continue to caution their adherents not to follow suit. Importantly, Al Wefaq has continued to press its platform of eschewing violence while pushing for political reforms, but not an overthrow of the monarchy. Qassim repeated this position during his Friday prayers sermon March 18, and Al Wefaq reportedly has been sending text messages to followers along the same lines.
These actions bode well for the government’s prospects of engaging the mainstream opposition, though Al Wefaq would still face political difficulties in entering into negotiations with the government as long as Saudi forces remain in the country. Such negotiations would serve Iranian interests, though it is unclear how much influence Tehran has in Al Wefaq. The Bahraini and Saudi regimes, meanwhile, have shown no signs of being close to ordering the withdrawal of GCC forces: Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said in a news conference March 18 that security remains the regime’s priority — meaning that the crackdowns and curfew will continue. He said more GCC forces had arrived in Bahrain to protect vital installations while leaving internal security to Bahrain-led forces.
Saudi Shiite protesters demonstrated March 18 in the oil-rich Eastern province cities of Qatif, al-Hasa, Awamia, al-Sanabis, Saihat and Safwa, using solidarity with their Bahraini counterparts as a rallying cry. Reports of the numbers of protesters ranged from a few hundred to up to 5,000 — though several of these estimates come from Saudi Shiite media outlets.
So far, Saudi security forces have been able to put protests down without much difficulty — though live rounds have reportedly been fired — but Riyadh is taking the issue very seriously, especially as it does not feel it can count on the United States to firmly stand behind the regime should things begin to spiral out of control. In a March 18 speech on state-run television, Saudi King Abdullah announced a series of measures aimed at buying the loyalty of several elements of Saudi society. He issued several royal decrees, including promises to increase the minimum wage; hand out two months’ salary to all state, civil and military employees; hand out money to the unemployed; build 500,000 new housing units; establish an anti-corruption body directly under the king; create 60,000 new jobs in the Ministry of Interior; and give all military personnel a promotion. He also announced measures that sought to give the clergy more control over the citizenry, urged the media to show greater respect for the clerics and promised the establishment of a Higher Islamic Authority within five months, as well as new Fatwa centers throughout the country. However, he warned in the speech that security forces will “hit” whoever considers undermining the kingdom’s security and stability, showing that while he is willing to bend, he also is trying to quash dissent.
Demonstrations also occurred in several Shiite-populated regions of Iraq March 18, but they were focused less on the Iraqi government (which, unlike those of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, is not run by Sunnis) and more on support for the Bahraini Shia. Up to 5,000 people reportedly were in the streets in the Diyala province cities of Jadidat al-Shat, Khales and Baquba, the provincial capital, where banners proclaiming a willingness to “volunteer to defend the soil of Bahrain” were on display. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where thousands came onto the streets, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani ordered a day of Hawza study in solidarity with the Bahraini people. There were also protests in the southern city of Basra, as well as in Diwaniyah and Missan provinces and Baghdad, where several thousand people took to the streets in Sadr City.
All these events play into a larger strategic struggle involving the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran has significantly benefited from the spread of the unrest from Tunisia into the Persian Gulf. While Tehran still faces significant constraints in further aggravating sectarian tensions in the region — especially in U.S.-allied Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — it appears to have made some progress in reshaping the terms of the negotiations with Washington over spheres of influence in the Persian Gulf region. The United States has taken a public position in recent days that both condemns the use of force by Saudi Arabia in Bahrain and calls for accommodation between the Bahraini Sunni royals and the Bahraini Shia.
The United States shares strategic concerns with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the other GCC states over the potential for Iran to shift the balance of power in eastern Arabia toward the Shia, but it also is severely militarily overstretched and does not wish to risk derailing its planned withdrawal from Iraq by falling into a confrontation with Iran. In a strategic sense, this represents a convergence of interests for Washington and Tehran: The United States needs to free up its military forces from Iraq, and Iran needs the United States to leave Iraq so it can secure its western flank by filling the resultant power vacuum.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, faces a much more immediate issue. Bahrain is a red line for Riyadh because ongoing Shiite unrest there threatens its Eastern province. Bahrain is close enough to Saudi Arabia for the Saudis to project military force with relatively little effort, allowing Riyadh to demonstrate a show of force to counter Tehran, but it fears that Washington would not fully support it if it were to use excessive levels of force to put down unrest at home, as it has already faced criticism for its actions in Bahrain. The Saudis see the United States slowly moving toward an accommodation with Iran and view it as a direct threat to their security.
This dynamic has been a source of much tension between the Saudis and the Americans in recent days — likely what Iran was hoping for. For Iran to compel the United States and/or Saudi Arabia to come to Tehran seeking an understanding — which Iran will want on its own terms — it needs to show it has the ability to foment unrest in the Persian Gulf using its Shiite proxies. However, the relatively mild March 18 protests show the constraints to Iran’s capabilities.