The Triple Fear of Gulf Elites
by Eldar Mamedov
One advantage of inter-parliamentary exchanges is that MPs have much more leeway than diplomats to speak their minds. When MPs represent authoritarian states, they can be counted on to candidly reflect the official position—otherwise they would not have been allowed to take parliamentary seats in the first place.
Such was the case with the inter-parliamentary meeting on April 20 in Brussels with members of the parliament of Bahrain. The meeting took place within the framework of the European Parliament delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula, a forum for political dialog with the countries of the Persian Gulf.
Since the P5+1 (US, Russia, China, UK, France + Germany) powers began to engage in nuclear talks with Iran, Western leaders have sought to allay the security concerns of their allies in the Gulf over a possible deal. But what often is missed is a distinction between the security of the peoples and security of the elites and regimes in the Gulf.
The strategic outlook of the elites in the Gulf seems to be determined by three fears: of Persians, Shiites, and populist Islamist movements. Iran is the common denominator of these fears. The level and intensity vary from country to country, but the negative sentiment in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most visceral.
Fear of Persia
Officials of these countries take pains to emphasize that their problem is not with Iran, but only with an Islamic regime they see as revolutionary and expansionist. This, however, is scarcely believable. Iran is resented as an important regional actor, independently of the nature of its regime. During the exchange of views, Bahraini MPs stressed the notion of a "Persian empire" that Iran is supposedly hell-bent to build in the Middle East. They implied that Persian nationalism is an essential characteristic of all Iranians, irrespective of their political or religious views.
A Sunni religious sheikh bluntly stated that Iran was more dangerous than Israel. "If you don´t threaten to throw Israelis into the sea, they won´t touch you," he said. "But Persians want to kill us no matter what."
The repeated calls of Iran´s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to discuss a regional security framework that would include all players and discard the zero-sum logic do not exist in this thinking. Also, the notion that Persians, who amount to only slightly more than half of the population of Iran proper, would conquer and subjugate the predominantly Arab lands sounds positively bizarre.
Like some other "moderate, pro-Western Arabs" from the region, Bahrainis lamented that the dismissal of Saddam Hussein´s regime has led Iran to fill the power void in Iraq, thus destroying the "natural frontier" between Arabs and Persians in favor of the latter. Considering the fresh memories of Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980, such invocations ironically only succeed in reminding Iranians of the strategic importance of Iraq and the priority of solidifying their presence there.
Fear of Shiites
Fearful Arabs view Shiite minorities throughout the Middle East as Iranian tools to expand its "revolutionary empire." This view neglects the fact that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Iranian revolution of 1979 was never a sectarian Shiite revolution. Although it certainly invoked Shiite themes of martyrdom and uprising against injustice, it was not directed exclusively at Shiites or even Muslims as a whole. It had universalist aspirations. No wonder that the Iranian revolution inspired many grassroots Sunni Islamist and even non-religious anti-imperialist movements in the Third World . In fact, espousing a narrowly Shiite outlook would have considerably limited Tehran´s freedom of maneuver and soft power.
If Iran today has influence with Shiite communities in the Arab countries, it is because of the discriminatory policies of states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as well as Western indifference. This leaves Shiite communities with no other choice than to move closer to Iran.
And even that does not mean that they are acting on Tehran´s behalf. For all the hype about Tehran supposedly controlling Yemen´s Houthis, it was Iranians who warned them not to rush to assume the power. Saudi and Bahraini narratives about Shiites utterly lack self-criticism: Shiites are seen not as fellow citizens entitled to the same rights and dignity as Sunni Muslims but as a security threat, Iran´s fifth column. Treating them as such risks a self-fulfilled prophecy.
Fear of Islamists
This brings us to the third fear: of grassroots-based, populist Islamist movements. The narrative of the Arab Spring offered by the Bahrainis was one of a centrally planned campaign (presumably from the US) to replace "moderate regimes" in Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain itself (Syria being absent from the list) with fundamentalist ones. In this context, Iran becomes a threat not only for what it allegedly does but also for what it represents: a system born of a populist revolution, the very antithesis of the monarchical, feudal structures in the Gulf.
Contrary to the perception of the Islamic Republic as a rigid theocracy, the republican pillar is extremely important for its identity. Supporters of the Islamic Republic point to its regular elections to stress the country's political and moral superiority over the absolutist tribal monarchies of the Gulf. But there is little evidence that Iran seeks to export its revolution to the Gulf countries.
The Gulf monarchies' threat perception of Iran is greatly exaggerated. Iran is a convenient scapegoat for the failure of the Gulf elites to provide good governance to their citizens. Such scapegoating distracts attention from the mounting social and economic problems, especially in Saudi Arabia, and the lack of freedoms.
Addressing the Triple Threat Perception
Thus, the best way for the US and EU to deal with the security concerns of their Gulf allies would be to confront them over their governance, their repressive "anti-terror" laws (like the ones recently adopted in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia), their human rights abuses, and their discrimination against fellow Shiite citizens. In this sense, the Brussels meeting with the Bahraini MPs was a lost opportunity to call on the Al-Khalifa government to release all political prisoners, including Sheikh Salman, the secretary general of the Al-Wefaq party.
If the US and EU act boldly and creatively, the deal with Iran could have a really transformative effect on the whole of Gulf by promoting political reform in the Gulf countries. If Iran lives up to its commitments under a final agreement, and so far it has abided by the provisions of the interim deal, it would be difficult for the Gulf elites to continue arguing about the Iranian threat to the West.
Instead, a successful deal could empower those in the Gulf who have a more pragmatic approach toward Iran. Confidence-building measures and discussions on an inclusive regional security system could gain momentum. And, in the absence of the Iranian bogeyman, the Gulf countries would finally be compelled to tackle the challenge of adjusting their political and social systems to the requirements of the 21st century.
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