Today's Coming Crisis Movie

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Analysis: Tiny Bahrain could provoke regional conflict

When Saudi Arabian troops rolled into Bahrain to help quell Shi'ite Muslim protests, the world's top oil-exporting region inched closer to a sectarian stand-off that could involve non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran.

Gripped by its worst unrest since the 1990s after protesters took to the streets last month, Bahrain said on Monday it had asked the Gulf Cooperation Council, a six-member Gulf Arab bloc, for support in line with a regional defense pact.

The intervention of Gulf Arab troops in Bahrain is highly sensitive on the island, where the Shi'ite majority complains of discrimination by the royal al-Khalifa family, who are Sunnis.

Gulf Arab ruling families are Sunni and intervention might encourage a response from Iran, which already supports Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, countries with large Shi'ite populations and no strangers to persistent sectarian strife.

Iran reacted swiftly, urging Bahrain not to allow what it called foreign interference in dealing with appeals for reform.

"Using other countries' military forces to oppress these demands is not the solution," Foreign Ministry official Hossein Amir Abdollahian told the semi-official Fars news agency.

Accusations already abound of Iranian backing for Shi'ite activists in U.S.-allied Bahrain -- charges they deny.

"Although this is unlikely at this stage, what may be perceived by some Bahrainis as foreign intervention may lead to calls by some for non-GCC intervention, such as from Iran, to protect the Shiites in the kingdom," said Ghanem Nuseibeh, partner at consultancy Cornerstone Global.

"Should the confrontation between the rioters and the non-Bahraini forces lead to substantial casualties, the likelihood of this happening will substantially increase." (read more)