By Hooman Peimani
August 22, 2002
Emir of Bahrain Shikh Hamad bin Essa Al-Khaliefe’s official two-day visit to Iran last weekend was not without significance. Besides discussing bilateral issues between the two Persian Gulf countries, the visit, which followed the official visits of the Saudi and Omani foreign ministers to Iran in early August, signified the increasing opposition among the Arab Persian Gulf countries to a possible American war against Iraq.
Such possibility has pushed them toward closer relations with the largest regional power, that is to say, Iran. The latter has increased its political influence and economic presence in the Arab world over the past few years.
Iranian-Bahraini relations have gone through different phases since the 1960s. As an Iranian island, the Iranian government leased Bahrain to Britain in the 19th century. When the 99-year lease ended in the late 1960s, Iran’s claim to the island’s ownership went contrary to the British plan for its independence backed by the ruling Bahraini elite. That development put Iranian-Bahraini relations on a hostile path. To solve the dispute between Iran and Britain peacefully, the proposed plebiscite to determine the Bahrainis’ aspirations for their future remained on paper. Backed by the British government, the Bahraini government declared independence of its country in the early 1970s. Under American and British pressure, Iran’s Shah regime tolerated its independence and gradually normalized its ties with that country.
The 1979 Iranian revolution created anxiety among the Persian Gulf Arab regimes, including Bahrain. They were all concerned about what they described as Tehran’s “export-of-revolution” policy aimed at their countries. Shikh Essa, then the Emir of Bahrain, visited Iran in 1980, but failed to secure friendly relations between the two countries. Bahrain’s taking sides with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) severely damaged its ties with Iran, although the two countries maintained diplomatic relations until 1990.
Blaming Iran for the anti-government riots of Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, the Sunni-dominated Bahraini government severed its diplomatic relations with Iran in 1990. The hostile relations continued until 1997 when the election of Iran’s reformist President Mohammad Khatami helped prevail a positive mood towards Iran among the Arab Persian Gulf states. In that year, Iran and Bahrain restored diplomatic and economic relations, which have continued to this date.
The recent developments in the Middle East have contributed to a growing opposition towards the United States’ Middle Eastern policy. Undoubtedly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned the Arab public opinion against the Americans. The majority of Arabs, including those living in the “moderate” pro-American countries such as Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan, now blame the American pro-Israeli foreign policy for the Israeli government’s high-handed approach towards the Palestinians and for its apparent lack of interest in continuing the Oslo peace process. Unsurprisingly, there has been a deepening anti-American sentiment among Arabs.
Added to this picture, the declared American intention to wage a war against Iraq to change its regime has further increased anti-American sentiment in Bahrain, like elsewhere in the Arab countries. That objective has made average Arabs furious, those who have resented the American policy towards Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In their eyes, that policy characterized with economic sanctions has amounted to a punishment for the Iraqis for their leaders’ wrongdoings.
There has been a growing concern among many Arab leaders about the destabilizing impact of such sentiment on their respective regimes, most of which are despotic and unpopular and thus vulnerable to political dissent. An American war against Iraq would most probably ignite popular resentment against the United States and those Arab states on its side on which opposition groups could capitalize.
Moreover, many Arab leaders, including those of Bahrain, have concerns about the possible negative consequences of a regime change in Iraq on their countries and their regions. Given the subscription of the Iraqi opposition groups to different and opposite political and ideological convictions, such concerns include the unknown objectives of Iraq under any future opposition-created government, including the latter’s unpredictable policy towards its Arab neighbors. They also include the questionable ability of the weak and divided Iraqi opposition to ensure peace, stability and territorial integrity of Iraq. Therefore, there is a realistic possibility of a period of instability in that country, which could spill over to its neighbors, such as the Persian Gulf ones. Additionally, the very idea of changing regime by a foreign power, whose application could well go beyond Iraq, has worried many Arab leaders, including those dissatisfied with the Iraqi regime (eg, Saudi Arabia).
In such a situation, there is a growing opposition in the Persian Gulf region towards a possible American war against Iraq. The regional countries, including Bahrain, have shown their dissatisfaction with the pace of events by tilting to a regional power, Iran, sharing their concerns in addition to those of its own. The Iranians have clearly stated their opposition to an American war against Iraq, despite their numerous grievances against the Iraq regime, which used chemical weapons against them during the Iran-Iraq war.
Apart from Bahrain’s interests in friendly ties with Iran, the last week’s visit of Shikh Hamad, whose country provides the base for the American Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, indicated the strength of Bahrain’s opposition to the American policy towards the region. For the same reasons, the Saudi and Omani foreign ministers visited Iran, even though their countries host American troops. During the first three weeks of August, the visits of three high-ranking Persian Gulf Arab officials to Iran, one of the three members of the axis of evil, clearly reflected their respective countries’ concerns about any American attack on Iraq, a declared topic of their discussion with their Iranian counterparts.
Bahrain’s growing relations with Iran have demonstrated a fundamental change in its foreign policy towards that country, which it identified as the threat to its national security for the most part of the last two decades. Among many other indicators, such as Shikh Hamad’s visit, the recent boycott of American soft drinks in Bahrain and the sudden popularity of Iranian ones symbolically indicate a shift in the balance of power between Iran and the United States in the energy-rich Persian Gulf, where both countries have strategic interests.
Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.