By Nima Tamaddon
Reporting on the protests in Bahrain has included some suggestions that the mainly Shia demonstrators have gained inspiration from neighbouring Iran.
IWPR’s Iran editor Nima Tamaddon discusses whether this is true, and whether the claimed Tehran connection will colour the western response to Bahrain’s version of the protests flaring across the Middle East.
There have been allegations that the Shia majority in Bahrain enjoys Iranian backing, so that demonstrators in the island kingdom may not ultimately be seeking to build a democracy. How accurate are suspicions of an external element to these protests?
In my view, what we’re seeing is an allergic reaction to the word “Shia”. The only external element here is the inspiration the protesters in Manama have gained from uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and even from the Iranian disturbances that followed the disputed 2009 election.
These protests in Bahrain are purely about democracy, rule of law and human rights.
Most of the protesters are Shia – do you see their actions as somehow religious in tone?
No, this story can’t be reduced to a Sunni-versus-Shia narrative.
There’s no doubt that Shia concerns have been the main engine of rebellion in Bahrain over the past two decades. Shia Muslims make more than 70 per cent of the population, and it’s generally accepted that they have faced discrimination in a country ruled by a Sunni dynasty.
However, many Sunni Muslims have taken part in the unrest alongside the Shia. So it’s not a religion-based protest. It’s all about rule of law and asking the administration to be accountable to its people.
From the start, the demonstration was organised by a group of young people using social media networks. It isn’t even clear whether they were Shia or Sunni.
They began by pushing for a constitutional monarchy. In other words, they were demanding a restriction in the absolute power of kings, not the dismantling of the system.
Since the bloodshed, however, the demands have changed, with some calling for an end to the entire system, others participation in the reform process, and the launch of a national dialogue.
How do Shia Bahrainis view Iran?
They are not necessarily fans of the regime in Tehran, and it’s very hard to conclude that they’re looking for an Iran-style Islamic republic.
Tehran likes to pretend to be a role model, but in the case of Bahrain there’s no evidence to suggest this is well-received. Of the six senior Shia figures in Bahrain – all of whom have supported the protests – the two leading figures, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Ahmad Ghassem and Sheikh Ali Salman, are regarded as moderates who oppose hardline clerics. Last year, Ghassem was criticised by the Bahraini opposition for urging people to vote in a parliamentary election.
There are also many families of Iranian origin in Bahrain, but as they came from southern parts of Iran, they include Sunnis as well as Shia.
Wouldn’t Tehran have an interest in fomenting unrest in Bahrain?
Iran is certainly trying to gain leverage from the Bahraini unrest, insofar as any kind of instability there is to its own advantage. Bahrain hosts the US Navy Fifth Fleet and a major British naval force in the Gulf, and is thus of crucial strategic importance to Washington and London, for instance in facing down Iran over its nuclear programme.
Isn’t it a bit risky for the Iranian regime to be encouraging a Shia population in one place to rise up against its rulers, when it has no intention of allowing something similar at home?
It isn’t necessarily a risk. Over recent weeks, the regime has been encouraging people across the Middle East to stand up against their governments – in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen and now Bahrain.
The discrepancy in approaches to dissent at home and abroad is illustrated by the Iranian response to the Bahraini police’s pre-dawn assault on sleeping protesters in Manama on February 17, in which at least five people were killed. Very quickly, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi described the attack as a “massacre” and urged the international community and Shia around the world “not to remain silent about these heinous crimes”. This response contrasts sharply with Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi’s silence on the brutal crackdown on Iranian protesters in 2009. Despite appeals from opposition leaders and activists, senior ayatollahs said nothing, apart from those already known to back the Green Movement.
The West has very particular interests in Bahrain – naval bases conveniently close to Iran, and the island’s location in the middle of a key waterway used to transport the world’s oil. Does this make a difference to the way the West is going to deal with this crisis, compared with protests elsewhere?
I think the US has taken the right approach on this, by lending support to the protesters’ demands and urging King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa to address those grievances. In my view, this is the main reason why tensions in Bahrain have reduced. Since then, we’ve seen that some of the protesters are still marching, people are discussing the offer of a national dialogue, and the king has pardoned a number of opponents. We can therefore conclude that the US mediating role has saved lives.
If we are to believe WikiLeaks, it seems Washington has taken a sceptical view of allegations of Iranian meddling in Bahrain. According to a recently-released diplomatic cable, an American diplomat in Manama said that despite being pressed to come up with evidence, the Bahraini authorities had produced “no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or governmental money here since at least the mid-1990s”.