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Saudis bring Iran, US closer together
The tussle between the brain and the brawn is a constant feature of international politics. The "Turkic" and "Persian" streams of consciousness on the Central Asian landscape provide a fine example. The tussle between Israel and Iran has been no less acute - or between the late Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Iranian leadership.
Bahrain developments bring to light all over again the Iranian trust in "brain" - how to optimally deploy intellectual resources in situations where fools rush in with might and armor, full of passionate intensity. If someone in Washington cares to watch, Tehran's moves since March 15 offer a case study for reaching some major conclusions about how Iran lives and works.
But that is going too fast, too far. At the moment, what matters is Iran's stakes in Bahrain. Bahrain's population comprises a majority of Shi'ites - as much as 70% - and although they are drawn more toward Najaf in Iraq than to Qom in Iran for spiritual guidance, almost one-third of them are Arabs of Persian origin whose welfare is a matter of legitimate concern to Tehran.
Second, the United States Fifth Fleet is berthed in Bahrain and among its vital tasks, it "spies" on Iran. Indeed, a key vector of US-Bahrain strategic ties is also their intelligence tie-up over Iran. Naturally, the "liberation" of Bahrain from the clutches of US domination is a matter of national security priority for Tehran.
Overlapping this comes the broader question of US regional influence in the region. Moving on further are Iran's aspirations to be a regional power and Saudi Arabia's dogged refusal to accommodate Iran in the Persian Gulf region, of which the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a living embodiment.
Iran keeps pressing for habitation within a common Persian Gulf "home". In the Iranian perspective, a "regime change" in Saudi Arabia would make that country more "authentic" and far more amenable to accommodation with Iran. Indeed, any gravitation toward republicanism - away from archaic monarchies - on the part of regional states would make them more receptive to the Iranian ideologies of resistance, justice and freedom and Iran's regional role would thereby get a fillip.
But a break-up of Saudi Arabia - or any of Iran's neighbors - is not in Tehran's interest. No doubt, Tehran would be horrified if the forces of religious militancy or terrorism exploited the regional turmoil to gain ascendance.
These are traditional parameters of the Iranian approach to the Persian Gulf region. Thus, there is no question of an Iranian intervention in Bahrain strategically or tactically. (Bahrain used to belong to Iran.) Tehran has no problem anticipating that if it steps forward and does something on the ground by way of opposing the Saudi military presence in Bahrain, it would be walking into a trap. Riyadh and Washington are combing the Bahrain scene to spot even a trace of Iranian involvement.
The morning after the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain on Monday, Tehran already had its script ready. It was almost as if a long-expected event happened, finally. Iran seems to have had no doubts that Saudi response to the Bahrain developments would be in terms of muscle power and Tehran's response needs to be "brainy" and political.
The following directions of the Iranian strategy emerged. One, the Bahrain crisis cannot be caricatured as sectarian Sunni-Shi'ite strife. Any such characterization would make Iran a partisan and isolate it from the Sunni Arab street, which would suit Iran's detractors very well. Iran's aspiration to identify (and even claim a degree of leadership) with the "Arab awakening" would be frustrated. Even more, the political thrust of the Middle East uprisings - "regime change" - might get obfuscated.
Two, following from the above, Iran's religious establishment refrained from commenting on the Bahrain developments. This is a smart thing for yet another reason that it is the Custodian of the Holy Places who has opted for muscle play and Iran would prefer to let time take its toll and allow the Bahrain developments to evolve into an acute "Muslim issue". The Custodian shot his own foot and can only bring ridicule upon himself over time when his troopers are seen on TV screens slaughtering Muslims in a foreign country - no matter his weak plea that he has a GCC mandate to do so.
Three, Iran's main focus is on "internationalizing" the issue. This is not to be branded as an Iran-Saudi bilateral issue. Thus, Iran's Foreign Ministry is in charge. Foreign Minister Ali Salehi is constantly on the phone. Iran has formally approached the United Nations (UN) and Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) - and, interestingly, the Arab League (AL) where Iran is not a member country. AL secretary general Amr Moussa finds himself in a fix after having taken a strident stance over Muammar Gaddafi's use of violence in Libya. Tehran knows Moussa won't have the courage to lift his little finger against Riyadh, but it is nonetheless keen to introduce the Bahrain issue into the pan-Arab agenda.
In communications to the UN, the OIC and the AL, Salehi asked rhetorically: "How can one accept [this] that a government has proceeded to invite foreign military forces for the crackdown of its own citizens?" He pointed out that the "military invasion" of Bahrain was not in accord with international law - no matter which country undertakes it and on what specious plea. He said the UN was obliged to take immediate decisions to end the incursion to defend its charter and the basic rights of the Bahraini people.
Tehran has also recalled its ambassador to Bahrain "to discuss the latest developments" and the Foreign Ministry called in the heads of missions of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in Tehran.
Four, Tehran will do it utmost to stir up the Arab street against the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain. Iranian media coverage of daily events is extensive and is widely disseminating it in the Arab world. There have been public demonstrations in Lebanon, Iraq and in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia.
It is a big embarrassment to Riyadh that the leading Saudi Shi'ite cleric, Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, voiced "dismay" over the Bahrain situation - "bloodshed, violation of sanctities and intimidation of people" - and called for dialogue and a political solution.
Tehran got a huge boost in its political campaign on Wednesday when Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who rarely intervenes publicly in politics, called on the Bahrain regime to stop the suppression of unarmed civilians. Sistani said problems should be solved through peaceful means. Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki also stepped in to criticize the Saudi intervention. Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's followers have taken to the streets in large numbers.
Maliki's statement merits attention in having a hidden warning also to Washington. He said the Saudi intervention "will contribute toward complicating the situation in the region, in a way that instead of resolving issues could led to inflaming sectarian tensions".
Significantly, the same warning has been sounded by Iran's Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who said the Saudi "invasion" of Bahrain would heighten tensions and adversely affect regional security and stability. "If such miscalculated and legally unjustified actions become a norm, the region could turn into a center for incendiarism [sic], hostility and conflict." The message seems to be addressed to Washington.
Tehran appears encouraged by the regional mood. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad spoke out for the first time on Wednesday, 48 hours after the Saudi intervention: "This military invasion is a foul and doomed enterprise ... Regional nations will hold the US government liable for such an atrocious behavior. The US is suffocating the world nations to rescue the Zionist regime."
Ahmadinejad's criticism of the US is noticeably restrained under the circumstances and is more in the nature of an appeal. Curiously, one of the first things the Iranian Foreign Ministry did was to call in the Swiss ambassador who takes care of the "Iran Section" in the embassy in Tehran.
Anyway, US President Barack Obama, too, voiced an opinion within hours of Ahmadinejad's remarks. White House spokesman Jay Carney revealed that Obama spoke by phone to Abdullah and King Hamad of Bahrain and "expressed his deep concern over the violence ... and stressed the need for maximum restraint".
Carney added: "The president also stressed the importance of a political process as the only way to peacefully address the legitimate grievance of the Bahrainis and to lead to a Bahrain that is stable, just, more unified and responsive to its people. The president reiterated his support for the national dialogue initiative led by Bahraini crown Prince Salman."
Obama's predicament is acute. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Abdullah disregarded US advice and sent in the troops to Bahrain. Reading very carefully between the lines, Tehran senses Obama's dilemma.
Rhetoric is one thing and Tehran will make the most of it, but it cannot be lost on the Iranian "brains" that for the fourth time in a row within the past six weeks, Iran and the US are finding themselves on the same side of the fence - on Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and now Bahrain. The big question is whether Obama notices it.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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