Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sunni-Shiite tensions rise in jumpy Persian Gulf


Bahrain's expulsion of a senior Iranian diplomat on charges he was linked to a spy ring smashed in Kuwait has sharply intensified tensions between the Islamic Republic and its Persian Gulf Arab neighbors in the strategic, oil-rich Persian Gulf.

It has also widened the growing and potentially explosive rift between Sunni Muslims and their centuries-old rivals of the Shiite sect at a time when the Middle East is consumed by political crises from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea.

At the same time, this swelling confrontation, largely conducted clandestinely through proxies, has ignited fears that the rivalry between these two gulf titans for domination of the region could erupt into a shooting war in a region that contains around one-quarter of the world's oil.

Bahrain's state media said Tuesday that Hujatullah Rahmani, second secretary at the Iranian Embassy, was declared persona non grata and ordered to leave within 72 hours. Tehran is expected to retaliate by booting out a Bahraini diplomat.

Relations between Manama and Tehran, which has long claimed Bahrain as Iranian territory, plummeted March 14 when Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops with tanks into Bahrain to help the 230-year-old al-Khalifa dynasty crush a pro-democracy uprising led by the island kingdom's Shiite majority.

On March 31, Kuwait expelled three Iranian diplomats after authorities uncovered what they said was an Iranian spy ring run by the clandestine arm of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Tehran expelled three Kuwaiti diplomats in retaliation. A Kuwait court had earlier condemned two Iranians and a Kuwait to death for espionage in that case.

Tehran denied that. But the Saudis, along with the other gulf Arab states, saw the Bahrain unrest as part of a covert exercise by Tehran to destabilize Shiite Iran's Sunni rivals amid the political turmoil sweeping the Arab world since January.

Bahrain's monarchy has long been a close Saudi ally. But Riyadh's main concern was that if the Shiites took over Bahrain, Tehran's next target would be Saudi Arabia's Shiite-dominated Eastern province, center of its oil industry, directly across the 16-mile causeway linking the states.

U.S. Navy 5th Fleet Battle Group

Bahrain is a key regional financial center and headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, a vital component of the U.S. military presence in the region and protector of the Sunni-ruled monarchies along the Persian Gulf's western shore.

Tehran warned Saudi Arabia, with whom it is locking horns in Syria and Lebanon, that it was "playing with fire" and risked being invaded itself if it persisted in throwing its weight around.

The Saudi intervention jolted relations with Washington, already strained as U.S. power in the region unraveled, creating doubts about the value of American protection.

Riyadh sees the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as leaving that country, historically a buffer against Persian expansionism, wide open to Iran's embrace.

That would provide a land bridge for invasion by Iran's vastly superior numbers, a bayonet pointed at Saudi Arabia that until Saddam Hussein was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 had been denied Tehran.

Invasion route from Iran into Sadi Arabia

The Saudis had been appalled, and frightened, at the way U.S. President Barack Obama had abandoned longtime U.S. ally President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to the mobs that forced him from power Feb. 11.

Since Iran making good on its thinly veiled threats to Saudi Arabia over Bahrain "is unlikely to happen anytime soon (given that the United States would not stand by and allow Iran to attack Saudi Arabia), this can be argued as being yet another hollow threat," the U.S.-based Stratfor think tank observed.

"A more nuanced examination of the situation, however, suggests that Tehran is not just simply engaging in bellicose rhetoric.

"Instead, Iran is trying to exploit Saudi fears. The Wahhabi kingdom fears instability (especially now when it is in the middle of a power transition at home and the region has been engulfed by popular turmoil).

"The clerical regime in Iran sees regional instability as a tool to advance its position in the Persian Gulf region," Stratfor noted.

"The Saudis are also not exactly comfortable with the idea of overt military alignment with the United States. The last time the Saudis entered into such a relationship with the Americans was during the 1991 Gulf War and it led to the rise of al-Qaida."

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