Misunderstanding Bahrain’s Shia protesters

Predominately Shia protesters are calling for political reform not alignment with Iran, researchers argue.

Bahraini women protesting - goes with Geneive article
The Shia in Bahrain have recently been distancing themselves from Iran whilst attention is diverted to Libya [REUTERS]

Listening to the rhetoric coming out of Tehran, one might assume that Bahrain’s Shia opposition is relying on help from its co-religionists next door. But, in fact, the opposite is true: the Shia opposition wants nothing more than for Tehran to stay out of the sectarian dispute unfolding in the tiny kingdom.

The major demand of the mainstream opposition is to turn the country into a constitutional monarchy, much like those in Europe. Other selected goals include: an elected government; a free press; an unrestricted civil society; and an end to discriminatory practises against religions other than the Sunni minority, such as unequal employment practises, unfair distribution of wealth, and the elimination of all forms of administrative and financial malpractice.
As the world’s attention has focused on Libya, Bahrain’s mainstream opposition has made every attempt to distance itself from Tehran’s rulers.

Sheikh Ali, secretary general of Al-Wefaq, the main Shia opposition group, publicly announced in March that his organisation had no desire to implement Iranian-style Vilayat-e Faqih, the concept of supreme clerical rule.

Yet, even given these facts, the grand promises from Tehran which now include sending young Iranian boys to Bahrain to protest, if not fight, alongside the opposition show that Iran continues to manipulate the crisis in its favour by trying to persuade the world that the Shia in Bahrain are one with those in Iran.

In reality, Bahrain stands as one of the most politically-aware states in the region. Demands for reform did not emerge only a few weeks ago when the unrest started, but date back to the years before the kingdom’s independence from Britain in 1971.
In the view of many Shia, the arrival of Saudi troops weeks ago is merely a ploy by Bahrain’s rulers to quell calls by the opposition for a Western-style democracy in favour of the status quo. For the Saudis, a crackdown on the Shia protesters in Bahrain sends a message to their own restive Shia citizens in the eastern part of the country who also demand democratic rule.

The Saudi military presence has produced two negative results: First, Saudi Arabia is pressing Bahrain’s rulers to use violence against its own people in order for the Saudis to minimise any potential Iranian intervention and to intimidate its own Shia citizens. Second, Iran is now using the Saudi invasion to threaten Bahrain’s government and pretend to be protecting its Shia brethren next door in a neighbouring state.

The sad truth is that there is now a significant escalation of tension in the Gulf which has not been seen in years. The stakes are high for Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but certainly not for Iran at present.

Consequently, expect Iran to exploit the situation in the days and weeks ahead, attempting to exert the maximum pressure on Bahrain’s government while stopping just short of provoking an armed confrontation with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states.

And tougher steps by Bahraini officials toward Iran cannot be ruled out in the days to come. Future moves could include the censure of Iran by the GCC comprising of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

What can be done? Rightly or wrongly, many political activists in Bahrain look to the United States to help promote democracy in their country. But what is most troubling is that high-ranking US officials and retired military generals seem to think that because the violence in Libya is worse, the Bahraini opposition should be left to fend for itself.

Recently, retired General Wesley Clark argued that the situations in Libya and Bahrain “are not comparable”. This might be true, but the United States has far more to lose in Bahrain if Iran is able to use the crisis to gain more influence in the country.

Many Shia believe the United States has decided that some Arab dictatorships are worth saving, and fearing a Bahraini Shia alliance with Iran, Washington actually gave the Saudis the green light to send in troops. If this indeed was one reason for the Saudi invasion, Washington should know that Iran’s actions and words are based upon its own interests, not those of the opposition in Bahrain.

Certainly, it is in Washington’s interest to see stability take hold in Bahrain, if only because Manama is home to the United States’ Fifth Fleet.

The crisis will only end if Saudi Arabia and Iran stay out of the internal crisis, Bahrain’s rulers are pressured to make compromises with the opposition, and the United States makes known that it will not tolerate a proxy war in which Iran stands to gain more than any other player.

Dr Jasim Husain Ali is member of the parliament of Bahrain and the Wefaq, the leading Shia opposition group. Geneive Abdo is the director of the Iran programme for The Century Foundation and the National Security Network, two Washington-based think tanks.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.