War of words and expulsions notch Up Iranian-Gulf tensions

The hardening rhetoric towards Iran constitutes a bid to influence developments in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf.(File photo)

The hardening rhetoric towards Iran constitutes a bid to influence developments in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf.(File photo)
Bahrain’s expulsion of an Iranian diplomat coupled with rising Saudi concerns about the safety of the kingdom’s diplomats in Iran as well as soccer players scheduled to visit the Islamic republic in May threatens to sharply escalate tensions in the Gulf.

The expulsions alongside the soccer friction ratchet up the friction between Iran and the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—which groups Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alongside the kingdom— over alleged Iranian instigation of anti-government protests in Bahrain and plots to overthrow the governments of Bahrain and Kuwait. The tension is complicating Gulf relations with Iraq, which is emerging as a wildcard in the region.

The hardening rhetoric constitutes a bid to influence developments in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf. Kuwaiti parliamentarian Muhammad Hayif recently called on the GCC to liberate the UAE’s Tums and Abu Mussa islands in the Gulf that Iran has been occupying for years. Mr. Hayif also demanded that the Gulf States promote cessation of the predominantly Arab province of Khuzestan from Iran. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran was ostensibly to support greater freedom for Khuzestan.

Mr. Hayif’s remarks came in response to Iranian denunciations of the deployment of GCC troops in Bahrain following widespread protests on the island. The Iranian parliament warned the GCC that it was “playing with fire.” Conservative parliamentarian Ruhollah Hosseinian said Iran should take a tougher position against the Saudi-led military presence. “There must be no hesitation on the part of Iran for military preparation,” he said, “when the Saudi government has driven its troops into another country.”

A senior Gulf official, speaking to Al Hayat, retorted that the GCC is “ready to enter war with Iran and even with Iraq in defense of Bahrain. Every state of the Gulf Cooperation Council is a red line. All are the same and we are ready to enter war to defend ourselves,” the official said.

The flames of Iranian-Gulf tension were further fanned when Kuwait last month uncovered an alleged Iranian spy ring. Three members of the ring—two Iranians and a Kuwaiti—were condemned to death by a Kuwaiti court in late March. Kuwait went on to expel three Iranian diplomats. Iran in response told three Kuwaiti representatives to leave the Islamic republic. The Iranian diplomat expelled by Bahrain is believed to be linked to the Kuwaiti spy ring.

In a potential escalation of the diplomatic tit-for-tat, Saudi Arabia has threatened to withdraw its diplomats from Iran if the Islamic republic failed to accord them proper protection after demonstrators in Iranian cities protested in front of Saudi diplomatic missions against the GCC military presence in Bahrain.

Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer called on Iran to protect its diplomats. “We hope that these continuous violations will not lead us to take other positions,” Prince Turki was quoted by Al Watan as saying.

The flames spread this week beyond the realm of diplomacy with the Saudi Football Federation expressing concern in a letter to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) about the security of four Saudi teams scheduled to play Asian championship matches in Iran in May. Soccer tensions first erupted in early March when Saudi immigration authorities demanded that Tehran’s Persepolis FC soccer team, Asia’s most popular club, be fingerprinted and iris scanned upon its arrival at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Al Ittihad. The Persepolis team refused what is standard procedure for all visitors to the kingdom, and was held at the airport for eight hours.

Tension between the Gulf and Iran has been simmering since long before anti-government protests began sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in mid-December. Saudi Arabia believes that Iran has long been bent on countering its influence in the Muslim world and has charged that Iran was behind a Shiite revolt in northern Yemen that ended last year.

A plan by the GCC to end the crisis in Yemen and pave the way for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure briefly stalled this week over the opposition’s reluctance to agree to the terms of the plan, which would grant the Yemeni president and his family immunity from prosecution; in the event, the opposition agreed, but reluctantly.

Nevertheless, the arrest in Egypt of former President Hosni Mubarak as his former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, faces possible sentencing to death on charges that he was responsible for the death of protesters who ultimately in February forced the Egyptian leader from office has strengthened Yemeni resolve to see their leader brought to trial.

Further complicating issues is predominantly Shiite Iraq’s apparent siding with Iran in the escalating war of words. Gulf leaders worry that Iraq could emerge as an Iranian bridgehead on their side of the waterway after Iraqi political and religious leaders held rallies in support of their Bahrain brethren and against the GCC military intervention.

What started in early March as a soccer storm in a teacup has escalated into a mounting crisis that is spooking regional stock exchanges and contributing to oil price hikes. If not managed properly, Iranian attempts at exploiting tension in the Gulf and Gulf fears that Iran could destabilize the region risk backfiring with the cold war turning hot and erupting into open hostilities.


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