The Bahrain Red Line

By Dr. Harald Malmgren

03/16/2011 – Underlying political instability in Bahrain is a fundamental conflict between the Sunni Arabs and the Shi’a Arabs. Bahrain is a Red Line for all Sunni royals and Sunni business and banking leaders in the Persian Gulf. Keep in mind that Bahrain is the banking center for most of the region.

In essence, if the pursuit of democracy were to succeed in Iran, the Shi’a majority (75% or more of Bahrain’s population) would take strong control of a new legislature. The US President would not find it easy to argue against democracy if the majority of citizens sought to oust the Sunni king and vote to kick out the US Fifth Fleet from its base in Bahrain. This base is the primary location for US Navy maintenance of security of the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz [1]. With the loss of this US Naval base, the security of Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as Kuwait and the UAE would be under greater threat from Iran.

Moreover, across the causeway from Bahrain lies a large part of Saudi Arabia, which is a predominantly Shi’a population, residing in an area of some of the most important Saudi oil fields. Iran would no doubt assert an overseer role if Bahrain sought to replace Sunni with Shi’a led government, and utilize Bahrain as a thin end of the wedge to penetrate, influence, and eventually seek to disrupt and even split off a large segment of Saudi Arabia.

In the background, the US military is due to withdraw from Iraq later this year, opening much of southern Iraq to Shi’a dominance, enabling Iran’s military to enter the area of the northern border of Saudi Arabia to “assist” in the security of Iraq.

With a transfer of power in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia would be vulnerable to Iran from both the north and from the east. Face to face, the Saudi military would not be a match for Iran’s larger army, and would have to rely on US advanced weapons technologies and US naval and air support.

Israel would feel an existential threat. Not surprisingly, Saudis and Israelis find themselves with a common threat, and Saudis would likely support, explicitly or implicitly, any military action by Israel aimed at weakening or deflecting Iranian efforts to disrupt security in the neighborhood, including in Syria and Lebanon.

Boiled down, a strategic balance of power is in play, and the future of the tiny island of Bahrain could provide huge leverage for Iran if it can succeed in turning up violence and demands for the end of the Sunni reign. In this context, the Gulf Cooperation Council is sending soldiers to support “order” and fortify the GCC Sunni Red Line against active penetration of Iranian-led insurrection. This is not about democracy in a tiny enclave because Iran certainly does not want real democracy in any Shi’a area it can dominate.

Rather this is about the security structure across the Persian Gulf and all of its oilfields.

It seems easily forgotten that national borders in the Gulf were redrawn less than a century ago.  The Sunni and Shi’a see the borders as imposed by foreigners, and could theoretically be redrawn by clever geopolitical maneuver.  This poses serious mid- and long-term questions for US, European and Japanese reliance on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.

It seems easily forgotten that national borders in the Gulf were redrawn less than a century ago.  The Sunni and Shi’a see the borders as imposed by foreigners, and could theoretically be redrawn by clever geopolitical maneuver.  This poses serious mid- and long-term questions for US, European and Japanese reliance on oil supplies from the Persian Gulf.

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Footnotes

[1] http://www.sldinfo.com/?p=16267

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