By Phillip Walter Wellman
Opposition supporters in Bahrain have expressed concern that escalating tensions between Iran and the West may further stifle their calls for democratic reform in the Persian Gulf kingdom.
Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite Muslims took to the streets nearly a year ago demanding a new government and more rights from their Sunni leaders.
The country continues to crack down on pro-democracy demonstrations and blames Shi’ite-ruled Iran for inciting the civil unrest.
Last month, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa alleged that Syria, which is also ruled by Shi’ites, was training young Bahrainis to overthrow the ruling family.
Bahrain’s main opposition party, al-Wefaq disputes the claims.
“We would like to be isolated from the international conflicts,” said Matar Matar,a spokesperson for the group. “We are worried about those conflicts and their impact on our country.”
Western nations have agreed on sanctions targeting Iran’s lucrative oil industry, hoping they will force the country to abandon its uranium enrichment program.
Tehran insists its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes and has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major route for world oil traffic, in response to the sanctions.
The United States says it will use force if necessary to keep the strategic waterway open, sparking fears of a confrontation in the Persian Gulf.
Al-Wefaq spokesman Matar says these tensions may provide an advantage for Bahraini authorities. “It is easy for the regime here to utilize this conflict and blame Iran for everything happening here in Bahrain and such tone can be accepted in the United States,” he said.
Bahrain’s opposition has criticized America and its allies for what it sees as a failure to press the Bahraini government to end its deadly assault on civilian demonstrators.
The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, adding to the complexity of the situation.
Theodore Karasik is director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“Within the U.S. foreign policy establishment there’s a split between those who believe that Iran is behind what’s ongoing in Bahrain and those that do not. Because of the U.S.’s relationship with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), however, public officials have to go on-record saying that this looks like an Iranian plot,” said Karasik.
The oil-producing monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both wary of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, sent troops to Bahrain last year to help quell the anti-government uprising.
However, according to Julien Barnes-Dacey, senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, the efforts of Bahrain’s Gulf neighbors were propelled more by fears that the pro-democracy movement would spread to their shores than by fears of Iran gaining more influence in the region.
“This is a domestic issue at the end of the day. Saudis are using, and the Bahraini regime are using this accusation of Iranian involvement to crack down on the protesters, but that’s a false narrative and it’s been quite comprehensively shown that there hasn’t been Iranian involvement,” said Barnes-Dacey.
Rights groups say more than 50 Bahrainis have been killed since demonstrations began last February, including four last week. The government denies it was responsible for the latest deaths.
Most analysts like Barnes-Dacey say the situation in Bahrain is likely to continue unchanged unless outside nations intervene.
“The international community really needs to be doing more there to exert pressure and to push the Bahraini government regime to lighten the repressive measures in place and to really give the segment of the population greater political and economic rights,” said the analyst.
However, as Bahrain sits both geographically and politically at the center of a geostrategic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, other experts say that increased international condemnation is unlikely to be heard anytime soon.
“It’s just a case of sometimes you’re caught in a bad place and I think they may be,” said Jason Naselli, managing editor at the Atlantic Community.
In a bid to improve the political situation in the country, Bahrain’s government recently announced a set of constitutional reforms, giving members of parliament more power to question ministers and more protection from dismissal by the king.
Opposition leaders say the changes will do little to stop the unrest.