The Middle East’s Cold War heats up.
The assassination of a Saudi diplomat in Pakistan came as an Iranian flotilla bound for Bahrain was turned back by warships of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Both incidents are signs that the cold war between Iran and the Persian Gulf States is heating up.
The Saudi diplomat, Hassan al-Qahtani, was killed in the Pakistani city of Karachi by four gunmen of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). His assassination had been preceded days earlier by a hand grenade attack on the Saudi consulate in the same city.
While the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a “very good job,” the Saudis discerned another familiar culprit. The Saudi newspaper Al-Jazirah laid blame for the murder squarely at the feet of Iran. It comes as little surprise as the Saudis have been accusing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of instigating civil strife in Pakistan through a series of targeted assassinations and mosque burnings.
The killing is just the latest sign of the escalating tension between the Sunni-dominated Persian Gulf States -- led by Saudi Arabia -- and Shiite-dominated Iran. Tension between the two groups has been rising in intensity since the February revolt of Shiite dissidents in the kingdom of Bahrain, protests which led to the subsequent entry of the GCC to restore order.
So, with Bahrain as the focal point of the current conflict, it seemed apropos that the second escalating incident arrived in the form of a two-ship Iranian flotilla headed toward Bahrain, ostensibly to show support for the Shiite demonstrators locked in battle with Bahrain’s ruling Sunni monarchy.
Unfortunately, it’s not the first time Iran has used a flotilla to stoke an international incident. In June 2010 an Iranian flotilla carrying sixty people was bound for Gaza in an effort to break through Israel’s blockade of the territory before it turned back due to what it called Israeli threats. That incident came after an eight-ship Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla was boarded by Israeli navy commandos in May 2010, an incident where IDF troops where met by a violent mob wielding sticks and knives.
Not surprisingly, Bahrain feared the same result with Iran’s newest flotilla and had warned Iran repeatedly about sending what it called a “sea caravan” to Bahrain. As one Bahraini official said, “This would be a blatant interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs,” adding “Bahrain did not ask for humanitarian aid from the Iranian republic.”
So, when the flotilla -- purportedly filled with 120 Iranian students, teachers and clergy -- left the Iranian port of Bushehr on Monday, it was turned back after being intercepted by warships from the Peninsula Shield Force, the military arm of the GCC.
According to Shaykh Fawwaz Bin-Muhammad Al-Khalifah, president of the Bahraini Information Affairs Authority, the Persian Gulf states had responded to what they believed was “Iranian interference.”
For its part, Iran claimed the flotilla to be nothing more than an attempt to show its sympathy for Bahrain’s Shiite community. Mehdi Eghrarian, the head of the Shiite Iran’s Islamic Revolution Supporters Society said the flotilla’s intent was simply to “bring a message of solidarity with the oppressed and tyrannized people of Bahrain.”
However, a former CIA intelligence told one news service that supporters of Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei had been assembled to launch a new confrontation with Bahrain. According to him, the flotilla would contain “martyrdom forces, consisting of Islamist thugs … who have been at the forefront in the brutal suppression of Iranian demonstrators.” More ominously, he warned, “They are also preparing suicide bombers in co-ordination with the Guards' Quds Force for attacks on Bahraini and Saudi interests.
While that assessment remains to be determined, what isn’t in doubt is that Iran’s most recent effort to interfere in Bahrain affairs comes as the small kingdom remains locked in an escalating clampdown on its Shiite population despite a pledge by Bahraini King Hamad al-Khalifa to end a state of emergency by June 1.
Bahraini authorities have set up a special security court to prosecute opposition leaders and other protesters thought to be linked to the February protests. To date, the court has sentenced four people to death and is in the midst of trying 21 Shiite opposition leaders and political activists accused of plotting against the kingdom.
Moreover, Bahrain’s government has been accusing Iran and its Shiite terrorist proxy Hezbollah of enflaming its internal situation by training Bahraini dissidents in its Lebanese and Iranian camps, accusations which led Bahrain in March 2011 to expel dozens of Shiite Lebanese for alleged ties to Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
So, it comes as little surprise that Bahrain's foreign minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa addressed Iran’s most recent provocation by substantially raising the rhetoric, warning, “The campaign against us from Iran at this stage is political, but it could have a different posture at any time.” Firing back, Iran’s foreign minister, Heidar Salehi, warned of “repercussions” if the situation in Bahrain did not improve.
However, Iran’s verbal assaults on Bahrain have been alternately balanced by it sending its Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to Kuwait to discuss bilateral and regional issues in an effort to mend fences with its Gulf neighbors. The stop in Kuwait will mark Salehi’s fifth regional trip in the past few weeks, following visits to Qatar, Oman, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.
According to an Iranian spokesman for Salehi, the trips have been intended because the Iranians believe “consultations among regional countries prove helpful in better understanding of the situation in Bahrain, and pave the way for an appropriate response to the legitimate demands of the people there.”
Despite the gloved hand, the Gulf States aren’t letting down their guard, especially Saudi Arabia. Since the beginning of 2011 the Saudis have authorized more than $100 billion of additional military spending to modernize and upgrade its ground forces and naval capabilities. To that end, it has begun to double its number of high-quality combat aircraft and add 60,000 security personnel to its Interior Ministry forces. Furthermore, the Saudis plan to create a Special Forces Command to unify its various special forces for possible rapid deployment abroad.
Some may argue that the monarchial Persian Gulf States and the Islamist Republic are nothing more than two sides of the same Islamic coin. As such, there is no difference in who triumphs in a coming clash, either will retain the same enmity to the West, perhaps just in varying degrees. Whether true or not, the recent events unfolding in the Gulf region demonstrate that we may soon at least have an answer.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.