Iran Blinks Over Bahrain

Flotilla sent to the island nation turns around.

On Monday, May 16, Iran and the pro-American Arab states had a frightening stare-down as Iran sent a flotilla to Bahrain to support the Shiites protesting against the ruling Royal Family. The provocation came after months of heated rhetoric and threats. As the region stood on the verge of another major crisis and possibly war, Iran blinked.

The Iranian Revolution Supporters Association sent the two ships with about 150 activists, doctors and clerics onboard. One-third of the participants were women, and ten children were also included. The objective was to “bring a message of solidarity with the oppressed and tyrannized people of Bahrain.” An Iranian website had been registering volunteers to fight in Bahrain. Nearly 2,000 had been recruited by late March, and there were reports that the flotilla was transporting some of them.

The region was tense as the flotilla was dispatched. One former Bahraini legislator said it’d be an act of war if it entered the country’s waters, and the Gulf Cooperation Council offered membership to Jordan and Morocco. A senior Kuwaiti official told a newspaper, “Kuwait will not hesitate to defend the Kingdom of Bahrain against any danger that may threaten its security…Bahrain’s waters are a red line, and Kuwaiti naval forces deployed there…will not allow any Iranian ship to approach the kingdom’s shores.”

The flotilla stopped half-way and returned to Iran. The activists dropped 5,000 letters of support for the Bahraini protesters into the ocean. The reason for the abandoning of the mission was “the emergence of threats from the ships of the Peninsula Shield Force and the possibility of attacks.” Iran and those commanding the flotilla did not have the stomach for a repeat of the Turkish flotilla incident of May 31, 2010.

Iran’s decision to back away from direct confrontation is surprising because the Iranian regime has been trying to justify military intervention in Bahrain. The regime’s documentary about its role in Islamic prophecy, The Coming is Upon Us, made clear that it believes it is required to soon lead an Arab coalition in destroying Israel, and that the uprisings against pro-American governments is a fulfillment of that destiny.

Supreme Leader Khamenei’s representative to the universities boldly said, “The uprising in Bahrain is the best opportunity to begin setting the stage for the emergence of the Twelfth Imam, our Mahdi. He also said, “The situation in Bahrain alone could be the catalyst to cause the disintegration of the United States and lead to the downfall of that straw empire.”

A member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee said, “The Saudis should know for a fact that Tehran will use all the power and potentials at its disposal to halt the oppression of the people in Bahrain.” He said if the United Nations did not act to expel the Saudi forces from Bahrain, then Iran must. On April 11, a pro-Ahmadinejad member of parliament named Ruhollah Hosseinian called for intervention. “I believe that the Iranian government should not be reluctant to prepare the country’s military forces at a time that Saudi Arabia has dispatched its troops to Bahrain.”

Hezbollah declared its support for the Bahraini uprising, and an Iranian government website published a letter from Shiites in Bahrain asking for Iranian help. The leader of the al-Haq opposition party said that the Saudi intervention gave the Shiite protesters “the right to appeal for help from Iran.” The nation of Qatar was reported to have seized two Iranian ships near Bahrain carrying weapons on March 27, but this report was denied. All signs pointed to a major confrontation, perhaps even a proxy war like the one Iran waged in Yemen in 2009.

There are three possible reasons as to why Iran decided against confrontation, aside from the cost of a conflict. The largest Shiite opposition party in Bahrain, as well as other parties, have flatly rejected Iranian intervention, and stand against the implementation of the Iranian style of governance. This lack of support for a proxy war may have deterred Iran for the time being.

Another reason may be the overtures made by the Bahraini government. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa gave a speech “offering friendship” to Iran, and earlier expressed support for Syrian President Bashar Assad. On Saturday, the Iranian Foreign Minister reacted positively to the speech, but the deputy-chairman of the parliament’s National Security Committee rejected it. The flotilla was dispatched despite King al-Khalifa’s remarks, but they may have influenced the decision not to clash with the naval forces protecting Bahrain’s waters.

The final reason may be that Iran’s goal in sending the flotilla was simply to build support for action in the future by forcing the Gulf Cooperation Council to refuse entry. However, the flotilla headed back towards Iran before being ordered to stop by the navy. The question over Iran’s restraint still remains unanswered.

The Gulf let out a sigh of relief on Monday but this does not mean that conflict is no longer possible. The speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani, said on that same day that the regime is “expected to act upon their human duty and react to the massive violation of human rights and the critical situation in Bahrain.”

Iran wants to dominate the Middle East and therefore, conflict with Bahrain is inevitable. The Iranian regime decided against provoking a massive confrontation on Monday, but this does not change its goals. The struggle for the future of the region continues.