No. 14                                                                 August 14, 2007

                                           Brandon Friedman*

Iran’s  regional resurgence has changed               [Bahrain] and should not and cannot be
the dynamic of Middle Eastern politics. It            overlooked,” caused a brief but serious
was made possible by the US invasion                  regional and international uproar.
and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq,               Shariatmadari’s remarks were part of a
which shattered the erstwhile balance of              broad response to a Gulf Cooperation
power and undermined American                         Council (GCC) statement issued a week
influence. The conservative Arab Gulf                 earlier, calling for Iran to participate in a
monarchies view Iran’s bid to establish               dialogue to resolve the dispute regarding
regional hegemony with serious concern,               the UAE’s ownership claims to the three
and Bahrain, which has been the target of             islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and
Iranian challenges to its sovereignty                 Lesser Tunbs.
throughout the twentieth century, has
reason to be particularly concerned.                          Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni
                                                      Muslim Al Khalifa family which captured
         On   9 July 2007, Hossein                    the Bahraini archipelago from the Iranian-
Shariatmadari, the editor of the                      based Al Madhkur family in 1782-1783.
conservative daily paper Kayhan and an                In the nineteenth century the Al Khalifa,
advisor to Iran’s supreme leader,                     acting in a fashion similar to that of other
Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene‘i, published a                 Gulf shaykhdoms, secured its territory by
controversial editorial entitled, “Street             entering into a series of treaties within the
Garden Song.”1 Shariatmadari’s assertion              framework of a Pax Britannica. The
that Bahrainis supported reunification                British remained an imperial power in the
with Islamic Iran, and that such a                    region with bases in Bahrain until the
reunification was “an indisputable right              1971 withdrawal from the Gulf. On the
for Iran and the people of this province              eve of the British withdrawal, the Shah
                                                      withdrew Iran’s claim to Bahrain after a
1                                                     UN supervised plebiscite indicated that
  Kayhan’s English translation of Shariatmadari's 9
July editorial can be found on-line at:               the majority of Bahrain’s population His follow-    favored independence. However, in the
up editorial from 17 July can be found at:            1970s, when the US and Iran were close
                                                      allies and Iran served – with Saudi Arabia
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– as one of the “Twin Pillars” of the US          Bahrain,” and added, “our message to our
regional security strategy, the Shah              neighbor is peace and friendship.”
objected to America’s establishing
permanent naval bases in Bahrain. The                     However,       Mottaki’s     weak
1979 Islamic Revolution exacerbated               attempts at conciliation prompted a
regional tensions by directing anti-              nationalistic backlash in Iran. Daryoush
monarchical rhetoric at the Gulf's states         Ghanbari, a member of Iran’s Majlis,
and undermining the authority of the              responded to Mottaki’s visit to Bahrain by
ruling families. In 1981 the Iranian-             stating, “Unfortunately there is a
backed Islamic Front for the Liberation of        contradiction in our foreign policy. There
Bahrain failed in its attempt to overthrow        is an unyielding policy against the US and
the Bahraini rulers. In 1996, Bahraini            the West…and an ineffectual policy
authorities identified a plot to topple the       toward the small regional countries.
ruling regime that was planned by                 Whenever they make a protest, we are at a
members of Bahraini Hizballah and the             loss and trample down our national
al-Quds Forces, with support from Iranian         dignity.”
                                                          The Bahraini issue provides Iran’s
       Above     and beyond the geo-
                                                  unpopular Islamic regime with a
politics, there is a socio-political              nationalistic rallying point that transcends
component that further fuels the tension          the regime’s Islamic ideology. As
between Iran and Bahrain. The Bahraini            domestic problems with the Iranian
island-state is ethnically more diverse           economy persist – such as the gasoline
than its Gulf neighbors. According to             rationing that triggered riots in Tehran on
various estimates, 65 to 70 percent of the        26 June – Iran’s leaders may view foreign
population is Shiite. The tension between         policy bombast and confrontation as the
the ruling Sunni elites and the Shiites           best tactic for generating solidarity
resulted in severe rioting in some of the         between the people and the state in Iran.
poorer Shiite villages in Bahrain during          The nuclear issue, Iran’s involvement in
much of the last decade.                          Iraq, and its territorial claims in the Gulf
                                                  are all issues that evoke long-standing
       Following Shariatmadari’s comm-            national aims that are not unique to the
ents, the Bahraini press responded in             Islamic Republic’s political agenda.
outrage.    Many Bahrainis, primarily             These issues temporarily divert public
Sunnis, protested outside the Iranian             attention away from the deteriorating
Embassy and one Sunni Bahraini                    socio-economic situation the regime is
parliament member, Shaykh Jasim al-               struggling to come to terms with.
Sa‘idi, went as far as to issue a fatwa
calling for the death of Shariatmadari.                   Shariatmadari’s 17 July follow-up
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mannouchehr              editorial employed Khomeini’s rhetoric.
Mottaki, visited Bahrain on 13 July to            For example, referring to the GCC’s
smooth things over and re-assure the              statement regarding Abu Musa and the
ruling Al Khalifa family that Iran respects       Two Tunbs he claimed: “You are – most
Bahrain’s national sovereignty. He did            unfortunately – talking for America and
not offer an apology, stating that “if            its allies in this preposterous case. While
something was published in a Bahraini             Iran is in the thick of an all-out struggle
newspaper, we would not expect an                 against America and Israel, you are trying
apology from the government of                    to open a new front against Islamic Iran.
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The American and Israeli crimes against           Tehran’s foreign and economic policies.
Muslim nations don’t bother you at all, do        Shariatmadari’s editorial, if indeed it is
they? You are not worried about the               representative of the state’s position, may
massacre of the oppressed Palestinians,           therefore be another indication of Iran’s
Iraqi men, women and children and the             return to the radical principles of
death of righteous Lebanese Muslims, are          Khomeini’s “First Republic,” and the
you?”                                             confrontational policies with Iran’s Arab
                                                  Gulf neighbors which characterized those
        The period following Khomeini’s           turbulent years.
death (1989) through Mohammad
Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005) is
often known as the “Second Republic,”
referring to a perceived moderation in

* Brandon Friedman is a Research Fellow of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv

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