Stratfor Global Intelligence Security Report
Analyst Reva Bhalla explains the constraints and opportunities Iran faces in trying to expand influence in the Persian Gulf region.
A similar scenario playing out in energy-vital Persian Gulf region would carry much more severe implications. In the Gaza situation you had the receiving party, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, welcoming the flotilla. In this case you would have the Bahraini government, the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], not to mention the U.S. Fifth Fleet highly resistant to an Iranian ship trying to dock on Bahraini shores. So why would Iran be supporting this aid flotilla?
We have to remember that Iran is facing a historic opportunity in the region, specifically in the Persian Gulf region. While Iran’s focus remains on filling a power vacuum in Iraq once U.S. forces withdraw from there, the North African unrest provided Iran with a very useful opportunity to create a destabilization campaign against its Sunni Arab rivals in the eastern Arabian region. Iran of course ran into a lot of constraints in this process and this is not exactly something new.
Throughout its history, Iran has had a lot of trouble trying to project influence in the Shiite-majority areas in eastern Arabia. Largely that’s a function of geography. If you take the example of Bahrain, which is really the flashpoint in the current crisis, Bahrain is majority Shiite country ruled by a Sunni royal family. Now, Bahrain is an island that demographically works in the Iranians favor, but it’s a natural extension of the Arabian Peninsula, so it’s very difficult for Iran to maintain a stakehold against roaming Sunni tribes throughout history. Iran instead had to rely heavily on religion and business links primarily to maintain that stakehold but that is really a function of why Bahrain would flip back and forth between Sunni and Shia powers throughout history. Fast forward to the Bahrain crisis of 2011 and it really didn’t take long for the Saudi-led GCC forces to come into Bahrain and ensure that the island would remain in Sunni hands. This is also why the Sunni states made a very rare showing of unity and countering the Iranian threat.
So Iran may not have been entirely successful this time in trying to overthrow Bahrain and power the Shia in eastern Arabia and put in jeopardy vital U.S. military installations in the region, but it also has time working on its side. While Iran remains very focused on Iraq, it understands very well that the grievances of the Shia are being exacerbated in Bahrain by the continued GCC presence on the island and by the continued crackdowns on the Shia in the wider region. In addition to acting as the true defender of the Shia not only in Bahrain but in the broader community, Iran also presents itself as the alternative to the corrupt Arab despots who are the target of ire in much of this part of the region. Iran also adds an additional layer in acting as the vanguard of the Islamic resistance which not only includes Shiite groups like Hezbollah and also very prominent Sunni Islamist groups like Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Iran on the one hand has a strategic need to show that it can supply more than just rhetoric in defending the Shia, but the geopolitical dynamics of the region are also working in Iran’s favor. Whether or not this flotilla actually sails will be an important test of Iranian resolve.