The Greater Game in Bahrain
According to rumors cited by anonymous Bahraini and Saudi government sources on Tuesday, the 1,000-plus Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) force, deployed to Bahrain in the spring to quell a Shia-led uprising, has begun to withdraw now that the security situation on the island has largely stabilized. STRATFOR sources in the Saudi and Bahraini governments clarified that there will be a reduction of GCC forces, but not a full withdrawal. A Saudi source went on to explain that a permanent base will be built to station a stripped-down Saudi-led force, ready to deploy on short notice, with Saudi reinforcements less than three hours away across the Bahrain-Saudi causeway.
When GCC forces intervened in Bahrain in mid-March at the request of the Bahraini royal family, the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf were in panic mode. A Shia-led uprising in Bahrain had the potential to activate dissent among Shiite population centers in Eastern Arabia, particularly in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province. The potential for dissent was especially elevated if Iran could bring its forces to bear under the right circumstances. Led by Saudi Arabia, the GCC moved swiftly to help Bahrain clamp down on demonstrations, using their combined security and intelligence powers to identify and neutralize suspected Iranian assets across Bahraini society.
So far, the GCC's handling of the crisis in Bahrain has worked. The most destabilizing elements within the opposition have been jailed and a large number of Bahrainis support a return to normalcy on the streets. The Bahraini government is shifting from restoration to maintenance of law and order, gradually reducing the security presence on the streets. Beginning July 2, the government will open a National Dialogue with various civil society groups. The government aims to give the impression that it is sincere about addressing opposition demands, so long as those demands are discussed in an orderly setting. It should be noted that the National Dialogue so far does not include Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq.
The sight of GCC forces heading home in armored vehicles while Bahraini government officials talk to a select group of opposition leaders may create the impression that calm has returned to Bahrain. However, a much deeper dynamic between the Arabs and Persians needs to be understood as these events unfold. Iran may not have been able to fully exploit the wave of Shia-led unrest that hit Bahrain, and Tehran has historically faced considerable constraints in projecting influence to its co-religionists in Eastern Arabia. Nevertheless, STRATFOR has also picked up indications that Iran was playing a much more deliberate game - taking care to conserve its resources while counting on the perception of a Wahhabist occupation of Shiite-majority land to exacerbate local grievances and stress the GCC states over time. With the Arab states on edge, Iran's primary aim is to ensure a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq - an area where threats to the Islamic Republic have historically originated.
This reality stresses Saudi Arabia, a state already bearing the burden of managing an explosive situation in Yemen while sorting out succession issues at home and - most critically - trying to figure out the best path forward in dealing with Iran. It is increasingly evident that the United States is too distracted to meaningfully counterbalance Iran in the near term, especially as Tehran appears to have the necessary leverage to prevent the United States from extending its military presence in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies are left wondering if the United States will temporarily set aside its broader conflict with Tehran and forge a short-term understanding with the Islamic Republic. Such an understanding could expand Iran's sphere of influence in the region on U.S. terms, leaving Saudi Arabia with a deep sense of betrayal and vulnerability. There are no clear indications that negotiations between the United States and Iran have reached such a juncture, but the Saudis have to reckon with the possibility. STRATFOR is wondering whether Riyadh, unable to fully trust U.S. intentions, is seriously considering reaching its own accommodation with Iran first.
This logic is what led STRAFOR today to take a closer look at what was happening behind the scenes of the rumored Saudi withdrawal from Bahrain. The GCC states and Iran are at an impasse. The Arabs demand that Iran cease meddling in their affairs and Iran counters that GCC forces must first withdraw fully from Bahrain. In explaining the plan for the reconfiguration of GCC forces in Bahrain, a Saudi diplomatic source mentioned ongoing talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran and said that there are indications that Iran may be backing off its covert activities in Bahrain. This claim obviously merits further investigation. If true, it could represent a preliminary yet highly important step in a developing Saudi-Iranian dialogue. Neither side would be expected to back down completely in the early stages of this dialogue, but a show of good faith - such as a reduction in GCC forces ahead of National Dialogue talks in Bahrain - could set the mood for further talks.