From a strategic point of view, the Iran-led regional axis has until now emerged as a net earner from the “Arab Spring” of 2011. In Egypt and Tunisia, two stable, pro-Western Arab regimes have fallen, giving way to ambiguous and potentially chaotic situations in those countries.
Among the countries of the “resistance axis,” meanwhile, protests have been brutally suppressed or stillborn, at least for the moment.
Attention is now turning to the vital Persian Gulf area. Bahrain is in the midst of an uprising by the country’s majority Shi’ite population. But the main question is whether instability will spread to Saudi Arabia – the key US ally in the area, and in many ways the linchpin of US regional strategy.
Here, Tehran stands to play a more active role than that of lucky bystander. The Gulf area is the central focus of Iranian ambition. It wishes to fulfill a long-standing strategic ambition of emerging as the dominant power in this area. The breakdown of order in Saudi Arabia would offer it a major opportunity to advance this cause.
Iran lacks conventional military ability and real economic power. It is adept, however, at turning political chaos into gain. The regime has developed tools and practices for political warfare which have so far delivered it domination of Lebanon, a competing franchise in Palestinian nationalism and key influence in Iraq.
If the Gulf regimes fail to effectively navigate the current unrest, Iran is fair set to begin to apply these practices in this area. The potential implications are enormous. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are aware of the risk, and are energetically trying to keep these areas closed to Iranian political-military subversion.
Bahrain is the test case. Here, the Iranians are best placed to make gains. The population of this tiny kingdom is 70 percent Shi’ite. The ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family has failed to address the socioeconomic needs and demands of this section of the population. The kingdom is currently roiled by a Shi’ite uprising. A formerly London-based cleric with Iranian connections, Hassan Mushaima, recently returned to take part.
Bahrain is small but vital. It is the base of the US Fifth Fleet, which ensures the security of the Gulf states in the face of a conventional military threat. Still, the real game is in Saudi Arabia.
Iranian potential depends largely on the volume of the Shi’ite population in a given country. In Saudi Arabia, Shi’ites constitute only 10%-15% of the population, around 2 million people. Scope for subversion there is limited, but potent.
They are found largely in the areas of al- Hasa and Qatif, in the oil-rich eastern province of the kingdom. Saudi Shi’ites are distrusted by the monarchy, and have long been subject to a repressive, restrictive regime and to economic marginalization.
The Wahhabi rulers of the kingdom despise Shi’ism, which they regard as heretical.
Like Egypt before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is facing an inevitable succession crisis. King Abdullah is 88 years old. Despite the vast oil wealth of the kingdom, there are significant social problems among Saudi citizens, both Shi’ite and Sunni. These include high youth unemployment and a shortage of available housing. So the potential for crisis, and for external exploitation of it, is considerable.
The solution the kingdom has traditionally found is a combination of repression and throwing money at problems. The recent announcement of $37 billion in benefits for Saudis, combined with the pronouncements of senior clerics forbidding participation in demonstrations, suggests that a similar approach will be tried to hold off the current regional unrest.
Will it work? The current indication, as oppositionists plan a “day of rage,” is that it may well, in the sense that the monarchy is unlikely to fall any time soon. The implications of such an eventually would be of such seismic proportions – above all to the global oil industry – that it may be assumed that the Western backers of the Saudis, if need be, will countenance all measures necessary to prevent this – unless a truly disastrous naivete prevails in the West, of course.
Whether or not the upcoming day of rage proves a damp squib, the Shi’ites of Saudi Arabia cannot by themselves pose a threat to the monarchy. They are too minor a section of the population. And the main focus of anger is likely to be this community. But this does not render them without use from Iran’s point of view.
It may be assumed that the Kuds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is well-entrenched among the Shi’ites of Saudi Arabia. If they can cause disruption in the oil-rich eastern province, they will attain a major new card in building their status as the key power broker in the Gulf. And if Saudi Arabia suffers from disruption beyond the boundaries of the Shi’ite community, Iran will also benefit from the simple zero sum equation that its enemy’s loss is its gain.
Thus, as the initial euphoria of the Arab uprisings begins to fade, the familiar contours of the regional standoff begin to return to visibility and assert their relevance.
Rival forces are attempting to make use of the sudden eruption of popular unrest for their own preexisting purposes. The game for Iran is promoting internal dissent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The objective for the West must include promoting the same against the brutally repressive Iranian regime. The Iranians have so far proved adept at suppressing their own protesters. The Al-Sauds are now determined to prove no less able practitioners of the art of staying alive and in power.