A number of the Islamic Republic’s most senior political officials have recently lashed out against the Saudi and Bahraini government’s after discussions of a possible “union” between the two Arab Gulf monarchies.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of six Arab Gulf monarchies founded in 1981, met recently to discuss a number of pressing issues including the possibility of a “European Union” style confederation that would create closer political, economic and security ties. These proposals appear to be most strongly advocated by Saudi Arabia, the most powerful member of the GCC, and Bahrain – the weakest.
The call for a closer association between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, including a possible union, has outraged Iranian politicians who view such a development as unacceptable. Hossein Shahriari, a representative from Zahedan in the Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis (Iran’s legislature), cited the “betrayal” of the Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, who agreed to a United Nations-backed opinion poll to determine Bahrain’s status in 1340 (1970), and the “utterly shameful” acquiescence of the National Consultative Assembly (Iran’s legislature under the Pahlavi dynasty) as being partially responsible for the separation of Bahrain from Iran. Stating that until recently Bahrain had been the fourteenth province of Iran, he asserted that:
“…we must combat the plots of the House of Khalifa and House of Saud. In fact, if this country is to join [any country], it must be with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Majlis, responded to Shahriari by saying that:
“Your point is correct, but Bahrain is not a morsel that will go down anyone’s throat so easily. In reality this action will create a crisis in the region.”
Mohsen Rezaei, head of the Expediency Council and a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also jumped into the fray stating that the “annexation” of Bahrain by Saudi Arabia was a dangerous proposition which would contribute to greater instability for the entire region:
“I think that if [Saudi] Arabia goes forward in this manner it will bring Iran’s patience to an end.”
He said that if such an “occupation and annexation” was to take place, Iranian officials would have to think seriously on the matter because it would compromise the security of the entire region.
Predictably, these statements by Iranian officials were met with outrage in Manama, where the Bahraini foreign ministry summoned the Iranian representative there to hear Bahrain’s “desire for such claims not to be raised in the future.”
Editor’s Note: Tensions revolving around Iran’s claims to Bahrain have come up in the past, but this time they are much more firmly rooted in the strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As one of the weakest GCC members, with a Sunni Arab minority ruling over a resentful Shiite majority, Bahrain is seeking closer ties with Saudi Arabia in order to enhance the al-Khalifa family and Sunni Arab minority’s security. During the 2011 protests in Bahrain which were linked to the larger Arab Spring sweeping the entire region, Saudi military intervention via the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force was crucial in maintaining the al-Khalifa family’s iron grip on power.
From Iran’s vantage point, any future Bahraini government that includes Shiites is bound to pull the tiny island nation closer toward the Islamic Republic and strengthen its position in the region. If Bahrain was to become a virtual province of Saudi Arabia, the Shiite majority would become further marginalized, weakening Iran. From the perspective of the Saudi’s, a Shiite government in Bahrain would not only undermine Saudi Arabia’s regional influence, but also potentially influence Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province (where much of that country’s oil resides) to rise up against the al-Saud regime.
As the conflict in Syria intensifies and Saudi Arabia escalates its support for groups fighting against the Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad – a key Iranian ally – Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province may become pressure points for Iran to utilize in order to balance what it perceives as Saudi meddling in its sphere of influence.