Iran and Saudi Arabia face off in Bahrain
Gulf countries are moving closer to Saudi Arabia as the latter tries more firmly to resist Iranian influence in the region, writes Eman Ragab*
The uncovering of an Iranian plot in Bahrain reveals a few "new" facts about the Gulf that challenge the old convictions held by pundits.
The first fact revealed is that Iran is more prepared to rely on its security forces, namely the Revolutionary Guard, than on diplomatic means in order to respond to Saudi policies aimed at curbing its influence in the region. Targeting Saudi embassies abroad, as in the Bahrain plot, sends a direct message to the Saudis that their influence and existence in Bahrain, and in Syria after suspension of its membership in the Arab League, is no longer legitimate or accepted.
This fact is expected to change the formula that Iran managed to maintain with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries since the 1990s; having good diplomatic relations with them despite pending and unsolved issues between both.
The second fact is that the Iranian regime might be less coherent than expected. The reaction of Iranian leaders to the uncovered plots, both in Bahrain and Washington, indicate that there could be a power conflict inside Iran between the supreme guide and groups loyal to him inside the Revolutionary Guard, and another group inside the same body that might be loyal to an extent to the president. Each party tends to achieve something in the area of foreign policy in order to absorb internal pressures, and to compensate for losses in Iran's regional image after its failure to provide real support to the Bahraini opposition during the 14 February protests while Saudi Arabia managed to provide financial, political, and military support to the ruling family in Bahrain. This support enabled the ruling family in Bahrain to oppress the demonstrations and to launch a campaign of punishment against all those who participated in the protests.
Relevant to that is a question about the current professionalism of the Revolutionary Guard. The guard is known for its high level of professionalism in planning, and executing operations. However, Bahrain's plot was uncovered in the preliminary stages, the suspects were on their way to Syria to get needed training. Thus, if it is proved that the guard is responsible for this plot, and Al-Jubair's plot, its level of professionalism is questioned, and this might be the trigger of change in Iran's policies in the region, as the guard controls -- along with the supreme guide -- Iran's foreign policy in the region.
A third fact is relevant to Qatar's policies. Since the protests in Bahrain it has become clear that Qatar's policies are not designed to harm or challenge Saudi Arabia as many pundits suggest; it is working, rather, indirectly for the benefit of Saudi Arabia, and it might be in coordination with it. According to the Qatari authorities, the four Bahraini suspects left Bahrain to Saudi Arabia by King Fahd Bridge, and then left to Qatar. It is expected that Saudi authorities tracked them and shared information with Qatar, given its experience in confronting terrorism and controlling borders with Iraq and Yemen -- just to avoid any harsh reaction from Iran if Saudi authorities uncovered the plot. This scenario is reasonable, as Saudi Arabia considers avoiding direct confrontation with Iran as a key doctrine in its policies towards Iran.
Bahrain's reaction to the plot revealed a fourth fact about the Gulf. Bahraini authorities accused directly and frankly the Revolutionary Guard and the Basseige for training one of the suspects on using explosive devices, and mentioned that one of the five suspects met with Assad Qasser, a leader of the Revolutionary Guard in Iran. This is unprecedented action by Bahraini authorities. It used to accuse a "foreign" state and a "third" party for causing troubles in Bahrain without mentioning Iran's name. Now things are different. It is this development that is expected to support the on-going efforts by Saudi Arabia to get a decision from UN Security Council that condemns Iran's activities targeting its diplomats.
In addition, the uncovering of this plot embarrassed the Shia opposition in Bahrain. On the one hand, the Bahraini authorities accused Abdel-Raof Al-Shayeb and Ali Mishemaa, opposition leaders in London, of planning the plot in cooperation with the Revolutionary Guard. Mohamed Mishemaa is the son of Hassan Mishemaa, an opposition leader arrested by the Bahraini regime during the February protests and accused of planning an overthrow of the regime during the protests.
On the other hand, the Bahraini prosecutor accused the suspects of receiving external funds and being trained by the Revolutionary Guard and the Basseige. These accusations pushed relations between the Bahraini opposition and Iran to the forefront again, used not by the regime only, but also by Sunni politicians to question the loyalty of Bahraini Shias to their country. For instance, Ali Al-Zayed MP speaking to Bahraini Al-Watan newspaper, and Al-Riyadh newspaper, accused the opposition of being responsible for the plot, and of having relations with Iran to work against the national interest and security of Bahrain.
The fifth fact is that Iran's activities in the region are no longer accepted as given. There seem to be a process of resituating Iran's influence in the Gulf, driven this time by GCC countries. This is supported by a series of events that show rejection of Iranian activities, that includes the uncovering of the Bahrain plot, the uncovering of Al-Jubair plot last month, and a series of arrests and the expulsion of diplomats and foreigners accused of spying for Iran both in Bahrain and Kuwait.
It become clear that GCC countries, with the exception of Oman, are ready to cooperate with each other to maintain and defend the survival of their regimes against Iranian intervention. These countries shifted their policies from ignoring Iranian activities on their soils, to condemning them, to confronting them, especially after the Bahrain protests.
The region during this period is expected to be driven by tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as each follows strategies that aim at widening zones of influence at the expense of the other. It is expected that Saudi Arabia will continue following this strategy in coordination with other Gulf countries, particularly Qatar, in order to avoid direct confrontation with Iran, and to achieve one clear goal: weakening Iran's proxies and alliances in the region, and restricting Iran's zones of influence.
It is expected also that the Revolutionary Guard will continue to play a key role in managing relations with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf countries. Any radical change in this regard will likely only be driven by a radical change inside Iran.
* The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.