Sectarian strife has emboldened Sunni Arabs to defy Tehran, experts say
Kuwait recalled its ambassador to Iran, making the second Gulf Arab country to do so in less than two weeks, amid signs that the region’s Sunni governments are growing concerned about alleged Iranian influence in their domestic affairs and acting promptly and publicly to squelch it.
The Kuwaiti action, taken on Wednesday, came less than 24 hours after the country’s criminal court condemned two Iranians and a Kuwaiti to death following their conviction of spying for Iran. Two weeks ago, Bahrain ordered back its ambassador to Tehran and not long afterwards entered into a war of words with the leader of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shiite movement allied with Iran,, and cut off air links with Lebanon.
"There is much fear of Iranian expansionism," Ali Al-Saffar, an Iraq expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told The Media Line. "Whether this fear is true or perceived is debatable."
The Gulf lies at fault line between Islam’s Sunni and Shiite sects, with Iran regarding itself as the center of world Shiism. The Arab emirates are ruled by Sunni monarchs, but in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia, Shiites are a restive minority . Amid the turmoil across the Middle East, fears of the Gulf’s Arab rulers of an Iranian-led Shiite insurgency have intensified.
Arabs and Iranians even dispute the proper name of the Gulf, with Arabs calling it the Arab Gulf and Iranians preferring the term the Persian Gulf. The United Nations officially confirmed the latter in 2006.
The three Kuwaiti men, who served in the army, as well as two others sentenced to life in prison, were accused of transferring photographs, videos and sketches of Kuwaiti and American military installations in Kuwait to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad Al-Sabah said that any Iranian diplomat implicated in the alleged spy ring will be banished from the country.
Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti government resigned on Thursday to avoid a grilling by parliament of three ministers, all members of the ruling al-Sabah family, amid calls for political and economic reform. The news service of Al-Watan newspaper, which is owned by a member of the ruling family, said the foreign minister was set to face a question that could "provoke sectarianism."
"The government was ready to face any questioning except that of Saleh Ashour," it said, referring to a Shiite member of parliament. Ashour accused Kuwait’s foreign minister of failing to defend Shiite Kuwaiti’s against accusations that they funded the Shiite insurrection in Bahrain.
Some 45,000 Iranians live in Kuwait, with significant Iranian nationals in other gulf countries as wall.
The Arab monarchs have long feared Iranian expansionism, but usually confined to closed-door diplomatic discourse. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Abu-Dhabi had all urged the U.S. to use military force against Iran’s nuclear program, diplomatic correspondence revealed last year by the Wikileaks website exposed.
Political unrest in Bahrain has acted as a flashpoint for sectarian tensions. Opposition protestors, led by the disaffected Shiite majority, paralyzed the island kingdom for weeks as they pressed for political reforms before the government called in security forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the so-called Peninsula Shield Force, to restore order.
But it also transformed a largely domestic dispute into an international and religious one, analysts say.
"The Iranian response to violence in Bahrain was swift and provocative, followed by similar provocations from Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon," Salman Sheikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, told The Media Line. "Senior Shiite clerics in Iraq have also spoken out against the repression in Bahrain, including Sheikh Ali Sistani."
Al-Saffar said Bahraini leaders traditionally fanned fears of Iranian expansion into their country when speaking to Americans, but never provided any evidence of that. He said the U.S. feared Iran and Arab regimes took advantage of that to legitimize brutal repression of Shiite opposition.
On Wednesday, a Bahraini Shiite Arab leader, ostensibly loyal to Iran, who asked the Islamic republic not to intervene in Bahrain’s internal affairs.
"We do not want Bahrain to turn into a battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran," Shiite opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman told reporters Wednesday. "We therefore ask the Saudis to withdraw the Peninsula Shield Force, and Iran no to intervene in the Bahraini matter.”
Concerns about Iran aren’t confined to the Gild emirates. In Iraq, which has been riven by sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiite, lawmaker Haidar Al-Malla called on President Nuri Al-Maliki to cut diplomatic ties with Iran. He criticized "Iran’s negative intervention in Iraq," the Iraqi daily Baghdad, affiliated with Iyad Allawi’s Al-Iraqiyah bloc, reported Tuesday.
Al-Saffar said the Iran threat is used by Arab leaders to scare Sunni Arabs and increase their sense of an external threat, thereby justifying a tough hand in internal politics.
"Iran has taken the mantle from Israel as the regional bogyman," Al-Saffar said.
Kuwaiti columnist Abdullah Al-Hadlaq framed his scathing critique of Iran’s foreign policy in ethnic terms, fanning primordial Arab fears of "Persians.”
"The media of Tehran’s fascist Persian regime didn’t report the uprising of the Syrian people against the Ba’ath regime in Damascus," Al-Hadlaq wrote Wednesday in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Watan. "While that dictatorial regime continues to intervene in the affairs of Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Egypt, "Palestine", and the Arab Gulf … it opens fire on its oppositionists and kills many of them and exterminates its people."
Sheikh said Iran had reached the zenith of its popularity amongst Arabs in 2007-2008 following Hizbullah’s war with Israel, but since that time public opinion, especially in the Gulf, has taken a more negative view of it.