Bahrain, which is 70% Shi’aa but ruled by a Sunni monarch, has been facing large protests for weeks now, with protesters calling for vast political reforms and many demanding the dissolution of the monarchy. Given the sectarian fault-lines at play, the kingdom is wary of its Persian neighbor, and is right to be. For Iran, the island nation naturally falls within its sphere of influence. Facing mounting protests and caught between two regional rivals — one Shi’aa and one Sunni — the kingdom has decided to call in a Saudi-led GCC force 2,000 to help quell the uprising. The organization’s charter, however only pertains to mutual defense, not the suppression of a domestic rebellion. Not surprisingly, Iran was swift to denounce the move, calling it unacceptable and warning of “dangerous consequences.” In response, Bahrain has withdrawn its ambassador to Tehran.
The Arab Spring, as it has come to be known, has thus far been exclusively about organic and domestic opposition movements, rising up from Morocco to Iraq. But with today’s sudden escalation of tensions, the region’s first geopolitical rivalry is playing out. Indeed, a ‘Cold War’ of sorts is tied to the fate of Bahrain, the reluctant proxy caught in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ultimately, who between them benefits from close ties with the tiny but strategic island state will depend on what, if anything, protesters achieve within the country.
Tellingly, on the same day that foreign troops entered Manama, thousands of Iranians defied their own authorities and poured into the streets to celebrate Chaharshanbe Suri (a Persian holiday and fire festival) and chant familiar anti-government slogans. Saudi Arabia faced its own ‘day of rage’ last week, shattering earlier projections that the House of Saud was insulated from the wave of protest sweeping the region. Perhaps, then, the larger question is not who will come out on top with respect to Bahrain, but whether either regime will be around long enough to be able to significantly influence events there.
All of that, and spring is still one week away.