The wave of popular revolts has not stopped at Suez, it is spreading like bushfire. And the next destination of this fast-spreading upheaval ironically is again the place widely considered as an American base. Bahrain which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet patrolling the Gulf, is next in line after Tunis and Egypt. According to The Wall Street Journal, this revolt is the first to pit a Shiite Muslim majority against Sunni rulers—heightening the dilemma for the U.S. as it struggles to pursue its interests in the region. The developments came as security forces in Yemen, an important ally in U.S. antiterrorism efforts, fought back protesters for a fifth day. In Iran, the government threatened leaders of Monday’s protests there with execution and made a fresh wave of arrests. The parallel protests against key allies and enemies of the U.S. sharpened the difficulty for the Obama administration, as fast-moving uprisings have unseated regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and triggered opposition rallies in Algeria, Jordan and elsewhere.
The president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both offered encouragement to Iranian protesters and aimed tough words at Tehran on Tuesday, in marked contrast to their relative silence on Iran during the last wave of protests in Iran in 2009. Mr. Obama praised the courage of protesters and said the Iranian regime was “pretending” to celebrate Egypt’s revolt while “gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully” at home.
But anti-US Iran is also not immune to violent protests where protests started again despite government’s use of “iron hand” to suppress the previous post-election demonstrations of 2009. This time, dozens of protesters were arrested for participating in the banned rally, an opposition Web site reported. A similar demonstration, clashes and arrests were reported in the central Iranian city of Isfahan. The gathering in Tehran appeared to be the most significant anti-government protest here since security forces cracked down on a series of massive demonstrations in 2009. The size of the crowd was difficult to estimate. Some witnesses said they believed it exceeded 200,000. The Associated Press said tens of thousands of people demonstrated. The government which had been admiring Egyptian protests, has declared Iranians’ protests as illegal and threatened with severe punishments for violators.
According to a news report, Bahrain is a tiny, island kingdom in the oil-rich Gulf best known for its banking prowess, along with bars that cater to nationals from alcohol-free Saudi Arabia next door. It pumps little crude itself, but the protests here have brought home to neighboring oil-rich capitals—Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Riyadh—a taste of the turmoil that had largely been limited to much poorer corners of the Arab world. It’s also the first country experiencing the recent unrest in which the often-explosive sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has emerged in a meaningful way. Shiites make up small minorities in other recent hot spots, including Egypt, Jordan and Yemen, but religious tensions haven’t been a driving factor in unrest in those places. A sustained Shiite uprising in Bahrain would alarm Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, all Gulf countries with sizable Shiite minorities. They worry about the unrest spilling across their borders, and the possibility Iran would have more opportunities to meddle in the region. Gulf rulers are often quick to blame Iran for instigating trouble among Shiite populations, though real Iranian influence in those communities has been limited.
Some U.S. officials believe if the current government fell in Yemen, U.S. operations in the country could be hamstrung. Those operations include training commandos and conducting counter-terrorism strikes. Yemen is the home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and officials say a collapse of the weak government could give the group free rein.
Likewise, the Obama administration fears unrest in Bahrain could undercut U.S. interests in a region where a significant chunk of the world’s oil is produced and transported each day. Although it lacks oil, Bahrain’s housing of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet make it a critical port for the Navy vessels deployed to counter Iran and protect the Persian Gulf. If Bahrain’s Sunni-led government were to be forced from power—something protesters haven’t yet made a focus of their demands—some fear a new government might seek closer ties to Iran and force the U.S. Navy to relocate. Another concern is that an uprising in Bahrain could spill into next-door Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, where even minor unrest might roil world-wide oil markets.
Please also read:
Wall Street Journal: Wave of Unrest Rolls into Gulf
The Washington Post: Anti-government protests spread to Iran