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    Middle East
     May 24, 2011


Decoding Obama's Bahrain puzzle
By M K Bhadrakumar

The address by United States President Barack Obama on Thursday regarding the Middle East situation was a mixed bag of certainties and ambiguities, although Obama did bring US regional policy frankly and squarely behind the Arab Spring.

On the other hand, the speech was a last-ditch attempt to define a new narrative and a desperate gamble to regain the initiative. There is indeed a fundamental contradiction insofar as any political order that is born out of the Arab Spring, which is representative or sensitive to popular Arab opinion will, by definition, find it difficult to forge strategic cooperation with America.

Cairo has opted for normalization of relations with Iran; begun whittling down security cooperation with Israel; and in a stunning

 
move reconciled the Palestinian groups and is probably encouraging them to seek United Nations recognition for Palestinian statehood. Washington is barely coping.

Unsurprisingly, Obama was highly selective when he contemplated changes in the Middle East; he just couldn't bring himself to mention Saudi Arabia. He didn't know what to say. The great puzzle is Bahrain. Obama said with certainty:
Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.

Nevertheless, we have insisted both publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute forced are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens, and we will - and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. [Applause] The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.
This can be viewed almost as a reprimand of King Hamad Khalifa, a close ally, and a rejection of the violent crackdown on Bahraini protesters. Obama would know that changes in Bahrain would inevitably affect Saudi Arabia. Yet, he never mentioned Saudi Arabia and the US is also "quietly expanding on a vast scale" the US's defense ties with Saudi Arabia.

An Associated Press analysis with a Washington dateline on the same day as Obama spoke reported a "historic expansion of a 66-year-old relationship that is built on America's oil appetite, sustained by Saudi reliance on US military reach".

Apart from the recent US$60 billion Saudi-US arms deal, AP reports on a top-secret US project to develop an elite 35,000-strong Saudi force trained and equipped by the US under the supervision of Central Command specifically geared to protect Saudi oil infrastructure and other sensitive establishments.

Equally, something appears very odd in what Obama said about Bahrain since he continued in the same breath to draw a parallel with Iraq, of all places: "Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process."

Najaf versus Qom
Obama's Bahrain puzzle needs decoding. On second thoughts, Bahrain and Iraq have similarities. In both places, democracy is all about Shi'ite empowerment. Clearly, the US pins hopes on the "reformist" crown prince of Bahrain to accommodate the demands of the Shi'ite opposition, while the prime minister, who is apparently a hardliner, is setting the pace for repression - and he is supported by the Saudis.

The US sees the alchemy of Shi'ite empowerment in Bahrain very differently from the Saudis. For one thing, Bahraini Shi'ite protesters aren't (so far) "anti-American" and the continuance of the US base for its Fifth Fleet is not in jeopardy. Again, Sheikh Issa Qassem, the spiritual leader of Bahraini Shi'ites, is prepared to settle for a constitutional monarchy and is not demanding an overthrow of the Sunni monarchy.

What Bahraini Shi'ites are demanding is power-sharing rather than a capture of power.

More important, the US doesn't subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the Iranians are going to be the "winners" if the Shi'ite majority gets a share of power in Manama. Iran, too, seems to realize its limitations. On the other hand, Bahraini Shi'ites do not want an Iran-type clerical regime - Velayat e-Faqih.

From the religious perspective, too, they draw inspiration from Najaf in Iraq rather than Qom in Iran. This last point becomes extremely important for comprehending the thinking behind Obama's remarks on Bahrain.

It is often overlooked that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shi'ites based in Najaf, has consistently avoided supporting strict conceptual interpretation of Velayat-e Faqih. He is neither openly dismissive of some of the underlying doctrinal ideas nor does he explicitly offer any substantive affirmation of the Faqih framework. In short, Sistani remains reluctant about getting involved in politics, although as prominent US scholar and academic Vali Nasr (who, incidentally, advises Obama on the Muslim Middle East) points out, he "never tried to promote rivalry" between his doctrinal ideas and those of the Iranian clerics in Qom.

What it all adds up to is that a friendly Bahraini Shi'ite nation could turn out to be a strategic asset for the US to build bridges to Najaf - and that holds immense significance for the overall configuration of American influence in Iraqi politics, which today Iran (vainly) tries to dominate.

Any redefining of Shi'ite empowerment away from the traditional stranglehold of the clerical establishment (and the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih) and the shepherding of Bahraini Shi'ites toward a genuinely democratic, "secular" way of life holds interesting geopolitical possibilities for US regional policies, as such a progression would be completely antithetical to what the Iranian regime (or Hezbollah in Lebanon) represents.

That is to say, the cumulative impact of "democratic" Shi'ite empowerment in Iraq and Bahrain could at some point come to a "fusion" that poses an ideological headache for the Islamic regime in Iran. Thus, reform in Bahrain holds the potential to kick-start an engrossing shadow play within the world of Shi'ism in the Muslim Middle East. If Bahrain can be finessed to follow the "secular" democratic route of Shi'ite empowerment and be conjoined with Iraq politically, it may hasten the demand for democratic change within Iran itself.

A schism erupts ...
Iran's clerics, who have their political antennae out, may be sensing trouble and that may partly explain the grim power struggle that has erupted between the religious establishment and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (who is incidentally the first non-cleric to occupy the position of head of state since the 1979 revolution). Conventional wisdom so far has been that Supreme Leader Ali Khameini solidly backed Ahmadinejad and that the president himself was the representative of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The thesis has been, finally, blown away by the past few weeks of dramatic happenings in Tehran. We are witnessing instead the Iranian religious establishment circling its wagons. The Majlis (parliament), top IRGC commanders, Friday Prayer speakers and even the Guardian Council - important organs of the religious establishment - are queuing up to criticize or put down Ahmadinejad.

They are taunting the president - inflicting scores of cuts on him that are bound to bleed at some point. The political stakes are high. It was none other than Khamenei who gave the green signal for the assault on Ahmadinejad when he took the decision last month to reinstate Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi (a senior cleric who was previously the supreme leader's adviser to the Basij, Iran's equivalent of a "people's liberation army"), who was sacked by the president.

Interestingly, this was preceded by a smear campaign for months in Tehran that Ahmadinejad was systematically promoting "non-clerical" figures into positions of power and was pushing a secret plan to have another non-cleric succeed him as president in the next election in 2013. Furthermore, that he was working on a master plan to marginalize the religious establishment.

Ahmadinejad is a staunch follower of Ali Shariati, the brilliant non-cleric Iranian revolutionary and sociologist who propagated "red Shi'ism" in the tumultuous years leading up to the revolution in 1979 - a curious amalgam of Marxism, Third Worldism and Islamic puritanism - which opposed the unrevolutionary "black Shi'ism" or Savafid Shi'ism of the Iranian religious establishment. Shariati was trained in Sorbonne in France and was a friend of philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre; he was murdered in 1975 and in the event the clerics hijacked the revolution from its Marxian moorings.

The latest political controversy in Tehran over control of the Oil Ministry is also related to the broader power struggle, as powerful elites within the corrupt and decadent religious establishment have traditionally controlled and enjoyed this milk cow of the Iranian economy in league with the bazaar, and they cannot brook Ahmadinejad's move to assume direct charge of the portfolio.

The Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog dominated by the religious establishment, stepped in last week to censure Ahmadinejad's executive decision to take charge of the Oil Ministry.

Again, Iran's administrative court, which is under the thumb of the religious establishment, has come up with a case against the head of the presidential administration, Hamid Baqaei, who is the right-hand man of Ahmadinejad and has the rank of vice president, banning him from working in state bodies for the next four years.

On Sunday, in a dramatic development, Ahmadinejad's key aide Kazem Kiapasha, who was touted in recent months as the president's favorite candidate for the 2013 election, was arrested.

Unshuttered balcony
According to the Tehran grapevine, many people loyal to Ahmadinejad, including his close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (who is also the president's chief of staff), have been taken in for questioning and websites allied to them have been blocked.

Mashaei and Baqaei have been summoned for questioning by Iran's intelligence services. Hardliners and conservative clergy have been campaigning in recent months that Ahmadinejad has a master plan to weaken the Velayat-e Faqih system. Evidently, the hydra-headed Iranian religious establishment is imposing itself on an assertive non-clerical head of state.

This schism within the Iranian regime and the enveloping revolutionary fervor imparted by the Arab Spring could stir up the moribund democratic movement within Iran. The Iranian religious establishment is not a pushover and it will fight tooth and nail to defend its untrammeled political power. But then, the Iranian religious establishment is also lately a divided house.

This is where democratic reforms in Bahrain leading to Shi'ite empowerment could act as a catalyst for an "implosion" within Iran.

Actually, Obama has been surprisingly mild in his rhetoric on Iran - as if he were keenly following events there. Such an approach makes sense, as any manifest attempt to muddy the waters of the power struggle in Iran could be counter-productive.

The growing disarray within the Iranian regime and contradictions in Iran's political economy are best exploited if Bahrain emerges at this juncture as another democratic society (like Iraq) where Shi'ites are empowered but have opted for a modern, forward-looking society seeking integration with the West in the present era of globalization.

Obama's approach is diametrically opposite the Manichean vision of the Saudi establishment, which is frantically rallying the Sunni Arab world. Obama distanced himself more than once from the Saudi tirade against Iran stoking the fires of Sunni sectarian passions.

He would rather prise open the 30-year-old house that Iran's Shi'ite clerics built by climbing through an unshuttered balcony window that Bahraini Shi'ites could hold open for him in the dead of the night.

Will it work? The hope is audacious since there is the real risk that persecuted Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia will also clamor for the empowerment that the Bahraini Shi'ites may secure under Obama's watch. If that happens, a reluctant Obama may come face to face with the imperative of reforms in Saudi Arabia, which would be the mother of all reforms.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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