Observers who have been closely watching the unrest sweeping Bahrain argue that Iran is bestowing a sectarian aura on the protests calling for political reform in the Gulf nation in order to serve its agenda. They ask if the Iranian media are deliberately inciting anti-Bahrain sentiments.
“Iran is taking advantage of the revolts that have lately spread throughout the Arab world in order to enhance its influence in the Middle East,” said Najah Mohamed Ali, editor-in-chief of Iranian affairs at Al Arabiya.
“For Iran, Bahrain is a perfect opportunity since it already enjoys relative influence and can use it as a gateway to export its ideas,” he said.
Mr. Ali added that the Iranian media are playing a major role in supporting the country’s intervention in Bahrain by using religious discourse that looks at the revolutions in the Arab world as a sign of an “Islamic awakening” in the region.
“The sectarian discourse is also very obvious since Iranian clerics are promoting intervention in Bahrain under the pretext of protecting the country’s Shiite population,” he said.
This strategy, Mr. Ali said, is detrimental to the cause of the Bahrainis since it undermines any legitimate demands they have for reforms and increased civil rights.
Adnan Salman, head of the political bureau at the Democratic Solidarity Party of al-Ahwaz, which supports the cause of Arab-Iranians, said that Iran takes advantage of the fact that Shiites constitute the majority of Bahrainis in order to render the protests sectarian rather than national or political.
“Iran is capable of exploiting some people in Bahrain in order to serve its interests using the sectarian issue,” he said. “It plays on the emotional attachment some Bahrainis might have towards Iran as the leader of Shiites in the region.”
Mr. Salman said that Iran seemed to be embarking on a Persianization project that considers countries with a majority Shiite population, like Bahrain, as part of the Islamic republic.
“It is both Shiite infiltration and Persian chauvinism,” he said.
However, Mr. Salman said, Iranians are overlooking two important points.
“First, most Bahraini Shiites are supporters of the Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and not Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Second, national belonging always comes before sectarian affiliation,” he said.
On the other hand, an expert on Iranian strategic and armament affairs, Amir Mousavi, accused those who characterized Iran being interventionist as people who wanted to deflect the blame elsewhere so as to absolve themselves of any responsibility.
“All Iran did was declare its support to all the revolutions taking place in the Arab world and call for establishing dialogue to end the Bahraini crisis,” he said. “How can that be considered interference in the affairs of Arab nations?”
Mr. Mousavi expressed surprise over how before protests started in Bahrain, Egypt had the same reaction when Mr. Khamenei supported the January 25 Revolution.
“Iran was faced with extremely harsh criticism on the part of several Egyptian officials,” he said.
Mr. Mousavi added that Iran was ready to take part in a dialogue on Bahrain as long as there was no use of force against peaceful protestors.
“The protestors are Bahraini and have to be treated as such. The fact that their faith is different from that of the ruling family does not sanction the shedding of their blood,” he said.
While Mr. Salman insisted that dispatching Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops, known as the Peninsula Shield, was part of a joint-defense treaty between member states of the council, Mr. Mousavi was of a different opinion.
“According to the 1982 treaty that created the Peninsula Shield troops, military intervention should only take place in case a foreign aggression takes place in one of the GCC countries. This is not the case in Bahrain in which the protests were internal,” Mr. Mousavi said.
Mr. Ali argued that Iran objected to dispatching GCC troops because its regime hoped the continuance of protests would weaken the government and make its mission much easier.
“What complicates the situation more is that after the dispatching of GCC troops, Shiite clerics have been calling upon Iran to intervene militarily in Bahrain and confront the Peninsula Shield,” he said.
Both Mr. Salman and Mr. Mousavi, however, do not think a military confrontation between Iran and Bahrain or GCC troops is likely.
However, Mr. Salman argued that Iran’s intransigence in the issue of Bahrain as well as in conflicts with other Gulf States—as with the UAE regarding disputed islands—was likely to escalate tensions.
“Iran’s rejection of international arbitration on the islands’ issue will widen the rift and create more tension,” he said.
Mr. Mousavi stressed that Iran wanted peaceful relations with Gulf nations and that diplomatic efforts were undertaken in order to improve the Islamic republic’s relations with Saudi Arabia.
“It is not in the interest of any of the parties to enter a conflict and they all have to be reasonable. We also have to stand together against the Western agenda,” he said.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid of Al Arabiya, who can be reached at: Sonia.email@example.com)