First, what’s happening right now:
Protesters in Bahrain are being killed by police officers in street conflicts, in what appears to be a campaign of fear by the country’s authorities to thwart the sort of political revolution that was staged in Egypt. Saudi Arabian, UAE, and Qatari troops are also participating in the crackdown.
But these protesters are not just anti-government revolutionaries.
The Islamic rift:
In Bahrain, the muslim population is estimated to be 33% Sunni and 66% Shia by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (via Wikipedia). The country’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, however, is Sunni, the minority Islamic religion.
Those protesting against the regime, calling for reforms, are mostly Shia, according to the BBC. A Shia government minister has resigned in the wake of the government’s response to the protests and Shia judges are now resigning too.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have all sent support troops to provide aid to Bahrain’s effort. They are all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and are all Sunni majority countries.
But there’s another power in the region that isn’t Sunni majority.
Why Iran matters:
Iran is the chief Shia power in the Middle East, with more that 90% of its population claiming adherence to the religion. The country is just across the Persian Gulf from Bahrain, and Iran’s leaders ruled Bahrain for a significant part of that country’s history.
Photo: Google Maps
But if you look at a broader picture of the region, you’ll note that it’s really a faceoff between two powers: Saudi Arabia and Iran.Iran has rejected the presence of Saudi Arabian troops in Bahrain. They’re calling for democratic reforms in the country, in line with what protesters are asking for.
But for Saudi Arabia, this would be a disaster. If Bahrain was to become more democratic, it would surely become Shia led (remember, majority Shia), and infect its sphere of influence. Success in Bahrain could also spur on protesters in Saudi Arabia, who have demanded democratic reforms in the Kingdom.
Why this matters for U.S. “interests”:
While from 30,000 feet, this may seem a tiny regional issue about a small island off the coast of Saudi Arabia, it’s a big deal in power politics for the Middle East. The U.S. has had a long-term stable relationship with Saudi Arabia that allowed it to check the rise of Iran by providing the less populous Saudi Arabia with arms. Now, with Saudi Arabia backing the violent response to revolution in Bahrain, U.S. leaders are clearly confused about how to react.
And for the U.S., Bahrain is a key power projection facility.
Bahrain and the United States signed a defence Cooperation Agreement in October 1991 granting U.S. forces access to Bahraini facilities and ensuring the right to pre-position material for future crises. Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The U.S. designated Bahrain a Major Non-NATO Ally in October 2001. Bahrain and the United States signed a Free Trade Agreement in 2004.
It appears Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are willing to go the distance in terms of crushing protests in the country. Iran will continue to flap its wings, but will likely be constrained from acting due to the high military costs of any endeavour.
What is most uncertain now is whether the U.S. continues in its support for democracy in the region, or retools and focuses on stability. If U.S. leadership chooses the former, it could lead to some difficult rifts with the Saudis, and a potential opening for Iran in the region.
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