Note: Contributing Writer David Dietz is based in Cairo and doing freelance reporting. For more of his opinions and coverage of Middle East politics, see his blog, TheMidEaster.com, where this story originally appeared.
With the Hezbollah-backed March 8 Alliance in the process of forming a cabinet after securing its leadership role in Lebanon, and the more recent and startlingly violent protests in Bahrain, concern over the possibility of a sectarian split in the Middle East has emerged.
Of the world’s roughly 1.2 billion Muslims, the Shi’a are the distinct minority with a following between 10 and 15 percent of the Muslim population, which all told, comprises less than 200 million Shi'a around the globe. Countries with a large Shi’a population are few, and only Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain host a majority of Shi'a believers while Yemen and Lebanon are home to Shi'a populations of around 35-40 percent.
Sectarian strife has long been a part of the Middle East. Throughout time, flare-ups have occurred, but tensions have usually been suppressed or kept beneath the surface. The last war fought over a sectarian divide in the Middle East – although territorial politics played a large role as well – was the Iran-Iraq war. Worried about a possible spillover over effect from the Iranian Revolution, Sadaam attacked Iran in an attempt to take land from and destabilize the new Iranian regime.
Sunni and Shi'a strife also occurred within the larger context of the Lebanese civil war which raged from 1975 to 1990. More recently, violence between the two religious sects smoldered after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, but so far Iraq has managed to avoid the larger conflict of civil war.
Now, with the wave of revolution sweeping the Middle East, the Shi’a and Sunni divide is once again pushing its way to the forefront. The battle ground this time is Bahrain. Ironically, trouble in Bahrain, which the U.S. and fellow Gulf countries are desperate to avoid, is partially the result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In what is an illustration of why ‘democracy building’ in the Middle East is a perilous enterprise filled with unknown future actions, in spreading democracy and freedom, the U.S. coalition may have inadvertently ushered in the rise of the Shi’a in Iraq. While not problematic in-and-of itself, a Shi’a dominated Iraq is a risk due to the country’s religious, and therefore likely political, ties to Iran’s regime.
Under former President Sadaam Hussein, religious fervor (Shi’ism, in particular) was crushed by the Baathist party, which crafted a vehemently secular ideology in order to avoid the wrath of sectarian politics and remain in power. A Sunni by affiliation, Sadaam relied on the secular doctrine to avoid conflict with the two-thirds Shi’a majority. While still active, the Shi’a were forced underground. By toppling Sadaam, the U.S. government paved the way for the emergence of Shi’a theology as a leading political and religious influence in Iraq, thus furthering Iran’s aspirations of greater supremacy in the Arab world.
As Iran grows in force in the region, an alliance with Iraq would both further its connection to the Arab world and strengthen its already deep relationships with the Shi’a communities in Syria and Lebanon. Such a prospect is troubling to the U.S. and the West, who view Iran as a terrorist state and a member of President Bush’s former “Axis of Evil.” With neighboring Iraq previously able to serve as a buffer zone between Iran and the Levantine region, the Shi’a doctrine was previously somewhat isolated to Iran. But, with Sadaam gone, Iran can extend its influence more fluidly.
Emboldened by its closer ties with Iraq and Hezbollah’s political gains in Lebanon, the Iranian Republic has now turned its sights on Bahrain. The small Shi’a dominated island country is seen as the gateway to the Gulf. As is evident by the continuation of the revolutionary spirit begun in Tunisia, the Arab world is currently an impressionable region and people are inspired by the actions of others in surrounding countries. Iran, which has long had its sights on Bahrain, is attempting to help the tiny gulf nation catch the revolutionary zeal.
The drumbeat started as early as 2007 when President Ahmadinejad, through the influential Iranian newspaper Kayhan, claimed that Bahrain was the 14th province of Iran. Bahrain’s Sunni King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa immediately shot back by suspending negotiations on a natural gas import deal. Other Gulf countries also concerned with the Iran’s meddling in the Gulf responded with similar severe measures and public disdain for the Persian state. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al Faisal, a former ambassador to both the UK and the U.S., went as far as to dub Iran one of his country’s “most ardent foes.”
Undeterred, Iran persisted. According to a 2007 article from the The Telegraph, “Iran is embarking on a sinister attempt to subvert the [Bahrain] monarchy by radicalizing impressionable young Shi'as and setting up a number of “sleeper” cells that could be activated if the West attacked Iran.”
Now, following weeks of violent unrest and protests, Iran is at it again, and once more the Bahraini government is fighting back. This time, however, Bahrain isn’t in the same position to resist Iran’s meddling as forcefully. Bahrain’s Shi’a majority sense the cracks in the regime and are pushing for major concessions from their Sunni King. While the protestors look as if they will stop short of the overthrow of the King, Iran will assuredly attempt to goad them further.
Realizing the potential avalanche that has been created, America, too, is increasingly worried. America’s Fifth Naval Fleet is centered in Bahrain, and the U.S. does not want to lose this critical strategic base in the Persian Gulf which can check Iran’s power. Currently, and fortunately for both the Gulf and the West, the protests have yet to split along the sectarian fault line. As a recent Christian Science Monitor article neatly summarized,
“The longstanding social contract among many countries in the Persian Gulf is simple: the ruling monarchy offers free housing, health care, education, food subsidies, and a government job for life. In return, the people defer to a system of tribal autocracy that gives little or no political representation to the masses. In short, lucre begets loyalty, and vice-versa. But the current protests in Bahrain indicate that, in the eyes of much of the population, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has failed to keep his side of the unwritten social contract…”
Such a contract has brought stability, peace, and prosperity to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s five other neighboring member states, but unlike in the other Gulf countries, the “river to the people” (the term used to describe the free perks and subsidies that come with being from the Gulf), is no longer flowing to all of Bahrain’s citizens. Instead, while their fellow Sheikdoms wallow in the river’s wealth and abundance, Bahrainis only get a trickle (certainly adds a new meaning to trickle down economics). Without the oil reserves that its wealthy GCC members are known for, Bahrain is unable to provide the gold-plated social services and programs that countries like Saudi and the UAE can. To compound the issue, rather than strategically apportion their wealth – which has mainly been gained as a financial hub – the majority of the riches have gone to the Sunni elite.
So, while the protests have focused on a desire for better opportunity and more equality, the possibility for a sectarian schism remains an explicit threat. Aware of the fragile unity and the potential for political inroads if it fractures, both Iraqi politicians and the Iranian regime are attempting to fan the fire and spur the Shi’a to revolt. Late last week, the Iraqi parliament proclaimed its support for the protesters in Bahrain and condemned Saudi military intervention. Rather than hold their scheduled parliamentary session, many Iraqi lawmakers launched into passionate tirades denouncing Bahrain’s crackdown on protesters. “On behalf of the Iraqi parliament, I call on all to leave all the social sects of the people of Bahrain to decide their fate by themselves away from any intervention,” Osama al-Nujaifi, the parliament speaker declared in a televised speech.
In nearby Iran, even more ardent and emotional speeches were made. After Friday prayers, a senior Iranian cleric urged the Shi’a in Bahrain to “keep up their protests — until death or victory — against the Sunni monarchy in the tiny island kingdom.” Meanwhile in the capital, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati had a similar message for his followers, urging the “brothers and sisters [in Bahrain to] resist against the enemy until you die or win.”
America has urged restraint and called for an end to [Iran's] foreign meddling, yet has remained conspicuously quiet on Saudi Arabia’s decision to send troops to the small Gulf island. Eager for Bahrain to achieve an internal political comprise, America knows its role in the Muslim world has become marginalized with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and current military intervention in Libya. Still, with a critical naval base in Bahrain and the threat of Iran's extending its reach to the door step of Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to imagine that America would remain idle were the uprising to swell.
Going forward it will be interesting to see how America reacts.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons