Category Archives: Bahrain

Bahrain says Trump better understands Iran and the region

Bahrain’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that US President Donald Trump understood the region and the threats posed by their common adversary Iran better than Barack Obama.

Speaking in an interview with Reuters at his office in the capital Manama, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said the staunch US Gulf ally was confident the new administration would soon clarify its stances on foreign policy.

The Sunni-ruled kingdom accuses Iran, a Shia theocracy across the Gulf, of radicalizing and arming some members of its Shia Muslim majority population, and Gulf monarchies say Obama did not do enough to tackle perceived meddling by Iran in Bahrain and in wars raging throughout the region.

Tehran denies any meddling in the island kingdom.

Trump has pledged to deal forcefully with the Islamic Republic and criticized a landmark international deal to curb its nuclear program inked under Obama in 2015 as a concession to a state the United States considers a sponsor of terrorism.

“We see … a much clearer understanding from the White House of the threats we are facing here in the region and especially the ones that are coming from the Islamic Republic,” Sheikh Khaled said.

“The last few years, there was a policy that we think it was better for them to correct, and we advised them it should be corrected.”

Sheikh Khaled last month met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has spoken by telephone with senior US officials, including Trump after his election in November.

Sitting astride one of the world’s key oil shipping lanes, Bahrain is a key ally of Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Neither country were among the ban Trump is seeking to impose on travelers from Iran and five other Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and Africa.

Some critics of the Trump administration fear it is prioritizing the fight against militancy and Iran over promoting human rights among American allies, but the foreign minister said the US shift acknowledged the region’s harsh realities.

“CLARITY IS COMING”

Sheikh Khaled said his country welcomed a decision by the White House to pursue a $5 billion sale to Bahrain of 19 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft and related equipment which was held up last year by concerns about human rights.

He said Trump’s style may have distracted some from the merits of his views, but all administrations had growing pains.

“They’ll get in order … every new administration will always start in a way that will seem unclear, but clarity is coming,” he said, speaking in his green and wood-panelled office adorned with pictures of past and present Bahraini monarchs.

“Maybe when you see the difference in the personality of the president, maybe that’s kind of giving an overwhelming picture of the situation. Things are working in America.”

Since 2011 Arab Spring protests led by Bahrain’s Shi’ites were crushed with the help from some Gulf Arab states, Bahrain says Iran has stepped up a campaign to undermine security there and bring about the downfall of the ruling al-Khalifa family, of which Sheikh Khaled is a member.

“It’s a whole project we are facing and it will not stop until this regime changes its course from the way it is now – hegemonic, theocratic, theo-fascist – to a regime that would answer the aspirations of its own people.”

“Until that moment we will have to defend ourselves.”

Human rights organizations have criticized an escalating government crackdown since the main Shi’ite opposition bloc was shuttered last year, several prominent activist were arrested and the top Shi’ite spiritual leader had his citizenship revoked on corruption charges.

Bahrain says it has acted to reform its security services and that it genuinely seeks dialogue with the opposition in a way that is rare in the mostly closed and authoritarian region.

“We feel like we are being pressured and punished for no reason, just for sticking our neck out and addressing issues that every country has,” Sheikh Khaled said.

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Hezbollah and the Gulf

Exploring the GCC and Hezbollah’s often tumultuous relationship

Lebanese Shiite supporters of Hezbollah protesting in Dubai in 2006, three years before the UAE began expelling them.

The United States listed Hezbollah as terrorist organization in 1999. The European Union is about to finalize a procedure to list Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization after a bombing in Bulgaria in 2012, as well as its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Bahrain already blacklisted Hezbollah last week, accusing it of instigating protests against the government. It came as no surprise then that all the Arab Gulf states followed suit and decided to consider taking measures against Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which met last Sunday in Jeddah, announced it had “decided to look into taking measures against Hezbollah’s interests in the member states.” But the GCC chief, Abdullatif al-Zayani, did not elaborate on what kind of interests he referred to.

 

Flag of Hezbollah

It was Bahrain’s foreign minister, Ghanem al-Buainain, who submitted the proposal to blacklist Hezbollah to the GCC. Bahrain also banned local political groups from having any contact with Hezbollah last week. The country, ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family, has been shaken by political unrest for two years as Shiite Bahrainis have demanded democratic reforms. Meanwhile, Bahrain’s government has blamed Hezbollah for inciting civil strife.

 

Analysts in Lebanon and abroad say the move goes beyond Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. It also encompasses the broader Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Arab world and an older grudge the Gulf States hold against Hezbollah and its patron (Iran) for past attacks and kidnappings.

 

“The GCC designation comes on the heels of the Bahraini listing, and against the backdrop of heightened regional concern over the activities of Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah,” said Matt Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Hezbollah The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.

 

“This includes not only Syria, which is the most blatant and immediate example, but also Hezbollah’s delivery of Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, [as well as] the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah’s activities in Iraq over the last few years,” Levitt pointed out.

 

However, the issue is seen differently from Beirut. According to Kassem Kassir, an analyst of Shiite affairs, “The relationship between Hezbollah and the Gulf countries was very good until recently.” Kassir continued, “We could see the Saudi ambassador always visiting Hezbollah, and during 2006 Hezbollah raised the famous ‘Thank you, Qatar!’ [after Qatar raised millions in aid to war-torn southern Lebanon]. The tension between these countries and Hezbollah is due to Syria, Bahrain, and the Gulf-Iran conflict,” he explained.

 

Apart from Bahrain, the GCC also includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman. Each country has dealt with Hezbollah differently over the past decade.

 

Qatar pledged a massive aid package to help rebuild the south after Israel’s devastating war with Hezbollah in 2006. It also played a key role in the resolution of the May 2008 crisis that ended with an agreement signed in Doha. The Emir of Qatar visited southern Lebanon in 2010. But once the Syrian conflict began, and Qatar supported the opposition and Iran/Hezbollah got involved on the side of the regime, the relationship quickly turned sour.

 

Lebanese Shiites also migrated to the booming business environment in the UAE, often establishing companies there. But in 2009, the UAE reportedly started to expel Shiites in general (and Lebanese Shiites in particular). UAE authorities explained the move as a “security threat,” a hint that the real motive was their alleged connection with Hezbollah.

 

According to Iranian Public Television (IRIB), as much as 4000 Shiite Muslims have been deported from the UAE over the past 4 years, even though many of these Lebanese have been residing in the UAE for over two decades. As the deportations reportedly continued, debates were triggered on Shiite forums, and many users accuse the authorities in the UAE of indiscriminately expelling Lebanese Shiites and confiscating their businesses and assets.

 

Hezbollah’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been on the edge, depending on the Iranian-Saudi regional rivalry. Similarly, Kuwait has been wary of Iran and Hezbollah’s interests after their failed assassination attempt on the emir in 1983. Since then, Kuwaiti officials have constantly hunted and arrested alleged spy rings.

 

Oman, which lies just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, has surprisingly good relations with Tehran, the West, and Gulf states. Oman has kept quiet on Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and the country hasn’t criticized Iranian interference either. At the same time, Oman has taken up the role of a mediator, spending significant resources on bailing out American hikers arrested in Iran, and negotiating for the release of British sailors taken hostage by Tehran.

 

“Listing Hezbollah as a terrorist [organization] will do no harm to Hezbollah, but it will harm the Gulf countries that should be aware that Hezbollah is an important actor on the political scene in Lebanon,” Kassir said.

 

Ali al-Amin, a political analyst for al-Balad and commentator on Shiite community affairs, stressed Hezbollah’s importance in local politics. “The Gulf countries know exactly the importance of Hezbollah on the Lebanese political scene. The UAE is treating the Shiites there as if they are listed as terrorists. The official statement will change nothing, they will keep on expelling people and stalking them, and treating them as terrorists,” al-Amin reiterated.

 

Levitt, however, does not believe it is Hezbollah’s political role in Lebanon that keeps the Gulf countries from listing it as a terrorist organization. “They are hesitant on this account only because they are concerned about retaliation. Hezbollah has a long history of activities in the region dating back to bombings, as well as the attempted assassination of the Kuwaiti emir in the 1980s,” Levitt stressed.

byAna Maria Luca

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

 

Yara Chehayed contributed with translation.

Iran pushes to expand Mideast war zones

Are we going to witness new twists in the regional confrontation with Iran? I’m afraid so; we are witnessing political and military escalation, such as the news on a surveillance aircraft which was shot down over Bahraini airspace. According to the Syrian opposition, a similar aircraft was shot down in al-Qusayr in Syria.

 

If that happens to be true, I mean if Iran has the boldness to direct aircrafts to remote airspaces, effectively violating the norms of political engagement, it’s a sign of a dangerous development. This development must be assessed in relation to other developments, such as the sending of Iranian fighters to Syria, activating espionage cells in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and sending a ship carrying weapons to Yemen.

 

Internationally isolated

 

This shows the hostility of Iran’s policy; it seems that Iran has headed for escalation because either it feels that it is internationally isolated – thanks to its nuclear activities – or because it feels that there is a void it can exploit, due to the absence of Americans. President Barack Obama’s policy might be showing U.S. indifference toward the region’s wars; it shows as well that the United States has lost its appetite for wars and confrontations, especially in the Middle East.

 

I favor the second reason; Iran is not afraid, but it rather feels that this is its opportunity to extend its influence. Iran might think that it has a rare opportunity now to exploit a situation, owing to Obama’s lack of interest in the region, which has never been the case since WWII.

 

Iran thinks that Obama does not intend to go for a military option no matter how far these conflicts in the region will lead. Under the leadership of the Revolutionary Guard, Iran wants to make inroads into Syria and Iraq while threatening regional oil-producing countries like Bahrain and others.

Are these mere speculations resulting from our fear or are they based on ground facts? Gunmen, espionage cells and surveillance aircrafts that are sent to Syria are all signs that Iran is trying to wage new wars and reinforce its influence without taking into consideration international calculations that have always been part of the diplomacy formula in oil-producing countries. Iran’s hostile policy, which is fueled by its nuclear program, has become more pronounced after the failure of threats and economic sanctions imposed by the West. Russia’s support to Iran is now worsening the situation.

 

We are now facing a growing monster called the Iranian regime that will keep on growing, especially that the Revolutionary Guards are now influencing and impacting more vital sectors in the country such as oil, main establishments, intelligence and foreign affairs. This Iranian monster is pushing the region towards more wars and disputes, which will lead to the expansion of war-zone arenas.

 

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 25, 2013.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed