February 14, 2011

Why Iran hopes Egypt's waves hit Bahrain ASAP

[Update: Since posting the entry below, I learned that one death resulted from today's confrontations. The loss of life is tragic and my thoughts are with the people of Bahrain, but my analysis has not changed.]

Every country has restive populations with legitimate grievances, and that includes the United States. Bahrain is no exception, either. But today's demonstrations by members of the Shia majority are extremely convenient for those clinging to the status quo in Iran, barely half a tankful of gas across the Gulf from Manama.

The Bahrain police put down the protests, at the same time Iranian police were putting down a massive opposition rally in Tehran with even more violent means. Iran's subversive strategy across the Gulf -- and in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza -- raises significantly greater concern in Arab political circles than anything Ahmadinejad's regime could be developing in its declared and undeclared nuclear facilities.

The irony of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government -- lacking international legitimacy since his farcical 2009 "re-election" -- extolling the Egyptian revolution while denying the right of its own opposition to rally in solidarity with the people of Egypt is sadly unremarkable. Suppressing democracy rallies at home may be necessary for his regime, but it's not the best messaging. Enter the latest Shia protests in Bahrain, and just in time.

 Any Gulf state, especially one like Bahrain -- with its small territory, large Shia population, and bases for the U.S. Fifth Fleet -- will be anxious about democratic agitation. In 1970, shortly before Bahrain declared independence, Iran even laid claim to it, and in recent years it has abruptly occupied lesser disputed islands.

A few  months ago, Bahrain was criticized for cracking down on dissent ahead of parliamentary elections, though Shia candidates ended up winning all the contested seats. Full democracy should be open to everyone, everywhere. But 60 million impoverished Egyptians need it urgently, along with jobs and hard currency.

For all its problems, Bahrain is no totalitarian holdout. It is playing a constructive role in the region, including vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian track, and without planting anti-American and anti-Semitic appeals in the state-owned news media. And it sustains a vibrant, versatile cultural and civic life, in the shadow of Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom of Bahrain should definitely be worried by today's protest. But they have better cause to worry about other challenges first. Iran, on the other hand, fears its own population more than a bombing run by the
Israel Air Force. It is in much greater peril from today's turnout on its own streets, and the Islamic Republic has made a big deal about claiming mentor status for the Egyptian revolution -- even while it defends against such an eventuality at home. Whether or not Iran's opportunistic agents are behind the rallies and plots against Bahrain, they certainly applaud them behind closed doors, and not for the right reasons.

[Full disclosure: I visited Bahrain in December 2010, as a guest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.]

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