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Tiny Gulf island state looms large because of its close ties with Saudi Arabia.
Apart from these domestic concerns, Saudi Arabia is nervous about Iran taking advantage of Bahraini Shias’ new assertiveness and gaining influence there. A major reason for the deepening divide between Sunni and Shia in the Arab world has been Iran’s perceived meddling in Arab affairs, including its support of Hezbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. In Iraq, the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority government led to Shia dominance in Iraqi politics, which gave Iran new sway there.
“There is a real fear Iran will put its hand in the Bahrain situation,” said Tawfiq Alsaif, a Saudi Shia intellectual in Dammam. “Until now, Iran is watching. But it may try to unite the [Bahraini] opposition like it did in Lebanon and Iraq ... Everyone wants to avoid Iranian involvement.”
In phone interviews, Bahraini Shia activists said that fears of Iranian insinuation into Bahrain’s domestic affairs are overblown. Despite irredentist sentiments among some Iranian officials, who have occasionally referred to Bahrain as Iranian territory, Tehran has stayed in the background during the recent protests, the activists said.
“Iranian diplomats are the only diplomats in Bahrain who don’t meet anybody, [unlike] like the Americans, the British, the French because they know the sensitivity of the issue,” said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
Besides, added Rajab, Shia in Bahrain “don’t see Iran as a model for democracy.”
Abduljaleel Al Singace, a senior official of Bahrain’s Haq Party, agreed that Sunni Gulf governments are worried about Shia political empowerment in Bahrain but said they were “magnifying the sectarian issue” to justify rejecting the opposition’s demands.
“People are asking for social justice, for participation in public life, an end to corruption and for good governance — these demands are not sectarian-based,” said Al Singace.
Both men accused Bahrain’s government of raising Iran as a scare tactic to frighten its own Sunni community and the West, including the United States, which has a huge naval base in Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia’s Shia community has also reacted to Bahrain’s unrest in a low-key way. There have been a couple of short, peaceful protests by Shia to demand the release of Shia prisoners held without charges.
The Saudi government responded by staying away from the demonstrations and releasing eight or nine Shia prisoners in recent days, including one arrested for writing about Shia grievances online.
As in Bahrain, Saudi Shia community leaders point out that the political reforms they are asking for are the same one Sunnis are also demanding.
“That’s the good of Tunisia and Egypt,” said Alsaif. “People have started to understand that their grievances and problems [lie in] the lack of the rule of law and a constitutional basis … in a national context.”