The Bahrain Chess Game

While the revolution in Libya has for many turned into a civil war between the rebels and the pro-Gaddafi forces, the situation in Bahrain is also deteriorating. The intensification of the demonstrations and the possibility of this turning into a violent conflict could have serious implications for the Middle East and the US in the near future.

Even though the revolution in Bahrain has similar socio-economic characteristics as other revolutions in the region, it also has an ethnic-religious component. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led the Shiias to escalate their already protracted struggle against the discriminatory policies of the ruling Sunni minority. Furthermore, the Sunni government has strong relations with America’s ally, Saudi Arabia whereas the Shiias have strong bonds with Iran, which has been accused of fuelling the demonstrations in Bahrain.

If the demonstrators somehow manage to overthrow the regime, then an outbreak of demonstrations by Shiias in Saudi Arabia is very likely to take place. Such a situation could seriously imperil U.S. interests in the region because Bahrain would be under Iranian influence and Saudi Arabia would be in a state of instability. Were that to happen, Saudi Arabia might try to invade Bahrain, possibly with American help, in order to bring things “back to normal”; Iran, in turn, would have all the reasons it needs to invade as well.

One other concern for the America is that the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. Indeed the small desert kingdom has been an important strategic base for US forces in the region since 1948 and has played a vital role in the American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, the US has previously expressed its support for the country’s “democratic efforts” and stated that it considers Bahrain to be a very important ally. From that perspective, and given the withdrawal, potentially by the end of this year, of American troops from Iraq, the balance of power in the region will shift dramatically in favour of Iran. That is also why Saudi Arabia is trying so hard to prevent any Shiia uprisings, with Thursday’s (10th March) shootings at protesters in the Shiite-populated city of Qaitf, being probably the most significant example so far.

Seen in this light, Iran’s ambitions of becoming a regional superpower could well come to fruition, since it might be very hard for the Gulf States to resist a Shiia tsunami sweeping across the region. From a strategic point of view, Saudi Arabia remains the “centre of gravity” of US power in the region, and it is that kingdom which Iran might most with to destabilise. Even from a historical perspective Saudi Arabia has always reflected American’s purpose and influence in the region, and has long been an obstacle to Iran’s goals.

There are several situations that Iran could take advantage of in order to increase its influence in the region. Firstly, the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq would strengthen Iran’s position in the country. Iran could exploit the demonstrations in countries with Shiia populations (e.g. Kuwait and Qatar) and, lastly, encourage or support demonstrations that could destabilise Saudi Arabia, as seen in Yemen. Thus, it is easy to comprehend that toppling Bahrain’s Sunni regime is only one small chess move in Iran’s long-term strategic game. It would only be the beginning and under these circumstances, the US would have limited options available to it in limiting Iranian influence, short of initiating another military conflict in the region, which might well make the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem like Sunday school stuff. In such circumstances, America’s best option might be to play a waiting game and adopt a long-term strategy aimed at containing Iranian influence, just as it sought to contain Soviet power during the Cold War.

In this context, Bahrain is the key player, the link which holds together the fragile balance of power in the Middle East as well as the future of US and western interests in the region. With Libya now in a state of civil war and the situation in Bahrain worsening rapidly, perhaps the most appropriate thing for the Sunni regimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to do, would be to undertake honest reforms, not only to maintain stability but also their own power.

Zenonas Tziarras

Posted on on March 13, 2011


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