New York Times: This small desert kingdom in the Persian Gulf has become a flashpoint in the escalating conflict for regional dominance between Iran and Arab leaders aligned with the United States, after an Iranian official said Bahrain was historically a province of Iran.
The New York Times
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN and ROBERT F. WORTH
Published: March 30, 2009
MANAMA, Bahrain — This small desert kingdom in the Persian Gulf has become a flashpoint in the escalating conflict for regional dominance between Iran and Arab leaders aligned with the United States, after an Iranian official said Bahrain was historically a province of Iran.
The conflict exploded into a diplomatic confrontation last month after being seized on by Arab leaders who were already angry and felt threatened by Iran’s involvement and rising influence in Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza. It also came at a time when some Arab leaders were still furious over Iran’s criticism of their response to the Israeli offensive in Gaza.
The president of Egypt and the king of Jordan flew to Bahrain. Morocco took the extreme step of severing diplomatic ties with Iran. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia called on Arab states to “deal with the Iranian challenge.” State-controlled news media across the region leveled sharp criticism against Tehran.
And Qatar, the host of the Arab League summit meeting that begins Monday, had initially said it would invite Iran, but then backed off because it was afraid too many countries would stay away. As it is, Egypt sent a very low-level delegation.
The anxiety of Arab leaders about Iran’s strengthening role has been heightened by President Obama’s overtures to Tehran. While Arab states oppose any military action by the United States against Iran, there is deep concern that Washington will cut a grand deal that will ultimately compromise their interests, especially here among Persian Gulf nations.
“The U.S. thinks a settlement with Iran is a key for the whole region,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. “This worries us. This mentality could lead to major concessions that could undermine our security.”
The reaction to the Bahrain comments by the Iranian official, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, was so severe that Iran took the unusual step of publicly apologizing, and sent its foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to visit several Arab capitals. Mr. Mottaki insisted that Iran respected Bahrain’s sovereignty, while Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said the comments were taken out of context and “exploited” by foreign powers eager to drive a wedge between Iran and its neighbors.
Though Iran’s diplomatic outreach has succeeded in calming tempers, officials, political analysts and diplomats here and around the region said that the reaction exposed simmering, unresolved tensions. They said that Arab leaders were frustrated by their own regional impotence, especially by Egypt’s failure to rein in Hamas, which controls Gaza, and alarmed by Iran’s rising military and political influence in places like Iraq and Lebanon.
“It will never be over,” said Adel al-Maawdah, chairman of the foreign affairs and national security committee in Bahrain’s Parliament, of the conflict with Iran. “But we have to go on. We don’t want war. We don’t want political tension between us and Iran.”
The conflict also underscored the tension between those officials in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia who are aligned with Washington and support the peace process with Israel, and those in Qatar and Syria who have developed close political and economic ties with Iran. There have been some efforts at reconciliation, and some progress. But there remain great differences as well, especially between Qatar and Egypt, over a variety of issues including relations with Iran. A predominantly Persian nation, Iran is seen by some leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Western-aligned countries as the greatest threat to their regional influence.
Feeling cornered, Arab countries hostile to Iran welcomed the remarks about Bahrain. One Jordanian analyst, a former adviser to King Hussein, said Arab leaders saw it as “God sent” because it gave them an issue to club Iran, Syria and Qatar with.
“The reaction was exaggerated, and it was intentionally exaggerated,” said the analyst, Adnan Abu-Odeh, adding that the goal was to show “that Iran is expansionist.”
From there, a ripple of hostility spread, causing other unresolved issues to flare up.
The United Arab Emirates has a longstanding dispute with Tehran over three islands in the gulf occupied by Iran. The largest of the three, Abu Musa, is strategically located in the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow chokepoint through which all vessels from Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the Emirates must pass to reach the open ocean. It has been occupied by Iran since 1992.
The Bahrain statement added so much heat to the Arab-Iran conflict that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, made a point this month of noting in an interview with Al Khaleej, an Emirati newspaper, that Syria sides with the Emirates in the dispute over the islands.
The conflict also aggravated hostility between several Arab leaders who are Sunni Muslims and their Shiite citizens. In Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Sunni Muslim leaders accuse Iran, a Shiite country, of inciting their Shiite communities to rebel; meanwhile, the Shiites in those places say their Sunni leaders use Iran’s rising influence as an excuse to step up their oppression. Some Arab leaders, including in Morocco and Bahrain, have accused Iran and its proxies of trying to convert their Sunni citizens to Shiism, a charge Iran has denied.
The gulf countries, which have immense wealth yet are extremely small geographically and have little military might, say they have valid reasons to fear their much larger Shiite neighbor, Iran. For example, the Emirates, a tiny string of nation-states, notes that it hosts 500,000 Iranian expatriates, more than the entire native population.
In any case, Sunni-Shiite tension has simmered across the region for many months. In Saudi Arabia, some of the worst clashes in years broke out in late February between Shiite pilgrims and the local police in the holy city of Medina, and have led to continuing protests among the country’s minority Shiites. One Shiite cleric lashed out publicly at the authorities this month and suggested that Shiites might one day secede, a rare rebellious gesture in the tightly controlled kingdom.
In Bahrain, there have been riots nearly every night in the poor Shiite villages along the coast. The rioters, who burn tires in the street and hurl rocks and metal spikes at the police, insist that they are protesting an apartheid system that denies them opportunities equal to those of their Sunni neighbors, and they say that their government has cracked down in response to the perceived threat of the rising Shiite power in Iraq and the rising influence of Iran.
In Parliament, Mr. Maawdah, a member of a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim political party, said at least part of the blame rests with Iran. “The region is seeking security,” Mr. Maawdah said. “In fact, all the region, the first thing they consider Iran because there is a very big mistrust.”
Qatar Welcomes Sudan Leader
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Qatar’s leader embraced Sudan’s president in a red-carpet welcome on Sunday as he arrived to attend an Arab League summit meeting in his most brazen act of defiance against an international arrest warrant on charges of war crimes in Darfur.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan had promised to attend the 22-member gathering after assurances from them that they would not enforce the International Criminal Court’s arrest order. But his lavish arrival suggested that Mr. Bashir would have a central role at the meeting. Mr. Bashir was greeted at the airport with an embrace and kiss by Qatar’s emir.
Arab foreign ministers have endorsed a draft resolution for the group to reject the court’s arrest warrant.
Michael Slackman reported from Manama, and Robert F. Worth from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo and Manama.