The unthinkable may be happening. For the first time since the Islamic revolution in Iran 32 years ago, Iran sought and obtained permission for its warships to cross Suez Canal.The Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a tone of great agitation that the Iranian move was a “provocation” and suggested that the international community should “put the Iranians in their place.” Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak called it “hostile” act.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a broader perspective: “Today we are witnessing the instability of the region in which we live and in which Iran is trying to profit by extending its influence by dispatching two warships to cross the Suez Canal. Israel views with gravity this Iranian initiative and other developments that reinforce what we have said in the past years about Israel’s security needs.”
Tehranremains nonchalant. An Iranian diplomat explained: “This will be a routine visit, within international law, in line with the cooperation between Iran and Syria, which have strategic ties. The ships will send a few days in Syrian ports for training purposes”.
But it is much more than about international law. Tehran is making a point about the tectonic shift in Middle Eastern politics. An entire era in the geopolitics of the region is drifting away into history books. The Arab revolt has spread to Iran’s neighborhood in the Persian Gulf. The crunch time has come for the “Iran question”.
Do not judge Bahrain by its diminutive size. It geopolitical weight is immense and it would be nothing short of catastrophe for the US policies in the Persian Gulf island opts for representative rule. Bahrain provides the base for the US’ Fifth Fleet, which spies on Iran, controls the Strait of Hormuz and dispatches military supplies for the American troops in Afghanistan. The Fifth Fleet is pivotal for the US regional security architecture.
Nearly two-thirds of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and almost half of natural gas reserves are in the Persian Gulf region and Bahrain is an important financial centre and a centre for refining crude petroleum to the tune of 270000 barrels per day.
Unlike in Egypt, the revolt in Bahrain has religious overtones. It is not only a democracy project but is also about Shi’ite empowerment. Shi’ites who form almost 70 percent of Bahrain’s population have been kept out of political leadership. The discrimination has strong class overtones, too. Shi’ite empowerment is a regional issue as well since Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sizeable Shi’ite minorities.
Iran’s shadow looms large over Bahrain: almost one-third of Bahraini Shi’ites are Ajamis (Shi’ite Arabs of Iranian heritage). For Saudi Arabia, Iran’s bete noire and the flag carrier of the US’ containment strategy toward Iran, the stakes are high. To quote Graham Fuller who served in the CIA (including as deputy head of National Intelligence Agency), as a Middle East specialist, “It’s not just that the majority is Shi’ite [in Bahrain]. From a Saudi perspective, the Bahraini Shi’ites maintain close family and cultural ties with Shi’ite families across the water in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Shi’ite minority, probably even more oppressed, is already restive and would be responsive to Shi’ite political unrest nearby. This is Riyadh’s ultimate nightmare – a further strengthening of Shi’ite political power in this oil-rich region.”
What makes the situation extremely fragile is that Saudi Arabia itself is entering into political transition following the illness of the 86-year old King Abdullah. The king’s 76-year old half-brother Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz is notionally in charge but he is ill and unlikely to exercise “hard power” again, while the prince’s full brother, 85-year old Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz who is the first man in line for succession, is battling cancer.
Power is exercised by Prince Nayef’s son Mohammad bin Nayef and the issue of succession remains wide open. To be sure, the great Arab revolt comes as a shock to the Saudi regime. Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz, the outspoken half-brother of King Abdullah told BBC last week that Saudi Arabia might well be the next in the chain of Arab popular uprising if it doesn’t swiftly act on reforms. But, he said, “The only person who could really maintain things and do major things and change is King Abdullah. But if he doesn’t do it, it would be very dangerous in our country.”
The Saudi Arabian Mufti Sheikh Yusof al-Ahmad warned that unless the regime implements reforms aimed at fighting poverty and unemployment, it would face popular uprising. Clearly, no matter the twists and turns of the popular uprisings in the Persian Gulf, the region will never be the same again. The genie of democracy can’t be put back in the bottle.
The geopolitical implications are far-reaching. A significant waning of US’ regional influence is on the cards. How big is the question. The Arab street militates against the West’s historical dominance and resents the US’ seamless support of Israel. The US military presence is also an emotive issue. Surely, any reordering of the economic cake hits the West hard since petrodollar recycling is integral to western prosperity.
The tensions in the region provided alibi for the “pro-West” regimes to embark on massive arms purchases without any conceivable relation to actual need. The oligarchies got kickbacks, western arms exporters made unspeakable profits and the gravy train ran for decades. Most recently, US secured a 60 billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia alone.
Again, the entire US strategy to erect a phalanx of “anti-Iran” states will flounder if the region adopts representative rule and Israel’s regional isolation, aggravated already by the developments in Egypt, can become irredeemable. Equally, “non-state” actors such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood gain legitimacy. Thus, a complete overhauling of the US’ regional strategy becomes inescapable.
Amidst all this, the spectre that is haunting US (and Israel) is that Iran’s rise may become unstoppable. The best hope lies in a “colour revolution” toppling the Iranian regime. But the prospects are bleak. The fundamental difference between the Iranian regime and Persian Gulf oligarchies is that the social base of the 1979 revolution still remains substantial. The revolution provided genuine social mobility and the social strata that gained ascendance through the past 3 decades will contest any attempt to topple the regime.
Ironically, any western attempt to incite revolt in Iran will only unite the chronically faction-ridden Iranian regime. This is already happening. It means the locus of power may shift even more pronouncedly to the advantage of those factions within the establishment that have been systematically marginalizing the old religious elites – “red Shi’ism” versus “black Shi’ism”. In short, despite the limited social base of the Iranian opposition and its lack of coherent programme or leadership, if a “color revolution” really shapes up on the horizon, the levers of power may actually fall into the hands of elements who could be much more radical than the present leadership.
Washington seems to comprehend this paradox. Anyway, there are far too may burning problems for US regional policy to remain focused on Iran at the moment. Washington didn’t whip up frenzy over the prospect of Iranian warships transiting the Suez Canal. (And, indeed, it remains to be seen if Tehran will in fact “provoke” Israel with its “hostile” act.) In his latest statements, US President Barack Obama didn’t bother to list Iran among Middle Eastern countries where popular uprisings are under way.
With Libya sliding into anarchy and growing uncertainties in the Persian Gulf, oil market may become volatile and Iran’s role can become crucial.From the Iraqi experience, Washington knows Iran can be a stakeholder in regional stability. Simply put, too much is at stake for the US to get into any confrontational mode vis-a-vis Iran.
This of course gives Iran much more space to maneuver. Tehran has happily placed itself in the vanguard of the democracy project across the region – be it Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Bahrain and Yemen. It has nothing to lose except its regional isolation.