The Times: This week’s row between Iran and Bahrain shows how Iran’s intention of being the superpower of its region is deeply upsetting its neighbours, particularly the tiny ones.
Bronwen Maddox: World Briefing
This week’s row between Iran and Bahrain shows how Iran’s intention of being the superpower of its region is deeply upsetting its neighbours, particularly the tiny ones. In Europe and the US, the scenario that preoccupies leaders is that Iran builds a nuclear weapon and provokes a nuclear race in the whole region – and developments in the past few weeks have shown how close Iran might be to doing just that. Iran’s Arab neighbours fear, too, that it will provoke those who follow its brand of Shia Islam – some of the poorest and most troubled communities in the region – to challenge their Sunni rulers.
The row kicked off a week ago when an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader remarked that Bahrain used to be the 14th province of Iran. True, it was part of Persia 250 years ago, but entered into a complicated series of deals to become a British protectorate, to escape Persian rule, before becoming independent in 1971. The late Shah of Iran renounced any claim to Bahrain in 1970 and, since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s leaders have avoided the subject.
Bahrainis, though, are well aware that Saddam Hussein used similar language about Kuwait before invading it. Iran put out a terse qualification that wasn’t quite a denial and dispatched its Interior Minister in person to Bahrain to deliver a reassurance that was anything but.
A high-profile security conference in the kingdom this week opened with a tirade against Iran’s “hegemony” by Abdulrahman bin Hamad al-Attiyah, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council. He lambasted Tehran for its stance, as well as for appropriating three contested islands near the most important shipping lanes. In response, Sadeq Mahsouli, Iran’s Interior Minister, offered an ambiguous note that Iran’s security depended on the whole region’s, but gave not an inch on the islands dispute. Then he and his entourage of thin, dark-suited men with thick beards swept out; so very different from their Arab hosts in their traditional white gowns, headdresses and clipped moustaches.
In one sense, this is nothing. Iran isn’t about to invade Bahrain (so it says). Nor is it actively stirring up trouble among Bahrain’s Shias, thought to comprise two thirds of the island’s population of 700,000. But it is a reminder of who holds the power, particularly now that there is a half-sympathetic Shia-led regime in Iraq. It is threatening to the tiny Gulf states and the royal families who perch on them. The Bahrainis, lacking much oil or gas, have made of their 30-mile strip of sand an energetic and commercial place, with an eye for finance and tourism. But as Iran’s influence grows, they are in the front line.
Some analysts hoped that the plunge in the oil price might check Iran’s confidence, but its nuclear programme is, in fact, accelerating. On Wednesday, it started tests at its first reactor at Bushehr. The International Atomic Energy Agency found recently that Iran had understated by a third the amount of uranium it had enriched and had launched a satellite that demonstrated how far its missiles could reach.
If Iran does get a nuclear weapon – or even acquires enough enriched uranium to do so – the balance of power will tilt even further in a region already tense about Tehran’s overbearing ways.