Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Saudi’s to the Rescue?

While the news media lately has been preoccupied with the disaster in Japan and the fate of the rebels opposing Gadhafi, there have been some very important developments in Bahrain. At the request of the Crown Prince in Bahrain and with American approval, Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition force into Bahrain to help the government calm the unrest there. This move is especially significant because it puts Iran in a difficult position, as Tehran had hoped to use the uprising in Bahrain to promote instability in the Persian Gulf region. Iran could refrain from acting and lose an opportunity to destabilize the region, or it could choose from several other options, none of which appear particularly effective.

Lets look at the Bahrain uprising. It consists of two parts. The first is genuine grievances by the majority Shiite population. The second is the interests of foreign powers in Bahrain. It is not one or the other. It is both.

The Iranians clearly benefit from an uprising in Bahrain. It puts our 5th Fleet’s basing in jeopardy, puts the United States in a difficult position and threatens the stability of other Persian Gulf Arab states. For the Iranians, the uprisings in North Africa and their spread to the Arabian Peninsula represent a golden opportunity for pursuing their long-standing interest of dominating the Gulf.

The Iranians have been very good at using their covert capabilities to shape the political realities in the Middle East. They did this effectively in Iraq and are doing it in Afghanistan. For them, this is low risk and high reward. The Saudis, recognizing that this posed a fundamental risk to their own regime and after consulting with the Americans, have led a coalition force into Bahrain to halt the uprising and save the regime.

We are now entering uncharted territory. This is the first time the Iranians have been effectively challenged. The question now is how the Iranians will respond, and there is every reason to think that they do not yet have a clue. They did not expect a direct military move by the Saudis, given that the Saudis prefer to act more quietly themselves. The Iranians wanted to destabilize without triggering a strong response, but they were sufficiently successful in using local issues that the Saudis felt they had no choice in the matter. It is Iran’s move.

The Iranians may choose to do nothing. In that case the wave that has been moving in its favor might be stopped and reversed. They could lose a historic opportunity. At the same time, the door remains open in Iraq, and that is the main prize here. They might simply accept the reversal and pursue their main target. Even if they do that, they may now have some trouble. There are rumors in Washington that Obama has decided to slow down, halt or even reverse the withdrawal from Iraq. Rumors are merely rumors, but these make sense. Completing the withdrawal now would tilt the balance in Iraq to Iran, a strategic disaster.

Therefore, the Iranians are facing a counter-offensive for the first time. That threatens the project they have been working hard on for years just when it appeared to be coming to fruition. Of course, they should not have been surprised that opposition has finally mobilized and resistance has grown so strong. But surprised or not, they must make a strategic decision and they do not have very long to make it.

One thing they might do is increase resistance in Bahrain and force fighting in the streets. It is not clear that the Bahraini opposition is prepared to take that risk on behalf of Iran, but it is a potential option. They also have the option of trying to increase unrest elsewhere in order to spread the Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council forces, weakening their impact. It is not clear how much leverage the Iranians have in other countries. The Iranians could try to create problems in Saudi Arabia, but given the Saudis’ actions in Bahrain, this becomes more difficult.

Another, more desperate action would be for them to attempt an overt intervention, either in Bahrain or elsewhere (such as Iraq or Afghanistan). A naval movement against Bahrain is not impossible, but if the U.S. Navy intervenes, which it likely would, it would be a disaster for the Iranians. Operations in Iraq or Afghanistan might be more fruitful. It is possible that Shiite insurgents will operate in Iraq, but that would guarantee a halt of the U.S. withdrawal without clearly increasing the Iranians’ advantage there. They want U.S. forces to leave, not give them a reason to stay.

Then there is the old standby indirect option, which is to trigger a war with Israel. The killings in the West Bank and Israeli concerns about Hezbollah might be some of Iran’s doing, with the emphasis on “might.” But it is not clear how a Hezbollah confrontation with Israel would help Iran’s position relative to Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. It diverts attention, but the Saudis know the stakes and they will not be easily diverted.

The logical thing for the Iranians is to retreat and wait. But the Saudi move shifts the flow of events, and time is not on Iran’s side.

Live Long and Prosper.....


Ted Leddy said...

Great post.

One option for the Iranians would be for them to initiate a military build up on the disputed Gulf Islands of Abu Musa and the Thumbs. This would certainly anger the UAE who have also sent troops to Bahrain and who claim the disputed islands.

Gary said...

Thanks. Yes, the Iranians could very well send troops to those islands. That would indeed put pressure on the Saudis and the coalition.
The Iranians have used their Revolutionary Guards instead of their military in the past to put pressure on foreign powers. They might try that here but I don't think they will use their military in a confrontational role -at least not yet.