Iran Fumes As Six Arab States Consider Saudi Plan for a Closer Union

By Patrick Goodenough | May 15, 2012 | 4:37 AM EDT

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa speaks during a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting in Riyadh, on Sunday, May 13, 2012. (AP Photo/ Hassan Ammar)

( – A proposal by six Arab Gulf states to explore a possible union drew an angry response in Iran, where lawmakers are painting it as part of a plot to “annex” tiny Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.

Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreed at a summit in Riyadh on Monday that their foreign ministers would study further a Saudi-led proposal for a closer union that envisages political, economic and military coordination, more open borders, and a centralized decision-making body to replace the GCC secretariat.

Although the decision for further study – ahead of an extraordinary summit at a yet-to-be-determined date – in fact delays the proposal, Tehran is unhappy with what it says is an attempt, under the guise of deeper regional integration, to “prevent the success of Bahrain’s [Shi’ite-led] revolution.”

Senior Iranian lawmakers are meeting with foreign ministry officials in Tehran on Tuesday to discuss the matter, Hossein Ebrahimi, vice chairman of the parliamentary national security and foreign policy committee, told the Fars new agency.

“We as representatives of the great Iranian nation strongly condemn this unwise measure and stress that nations cannot be pacified through force and political pressure,” 190 lawmakers said in a joint statement Monday.

“The brave and faithful Bahraini people, especially the clerics, the youth and women, have proved over the past 15 months that their Islamic zeal, national patriotism, their fisted hands and the slogan of ‘Allah is Great’ are more powerful than the aggressive powers, occupiers and Saudi forces.”

The statement warned that what Iran considers a joint plot by the Saudi and Bahraini governments to annex Bahrain would spread unrest into Saudi Arabia. (The kingdom’s oil-rich eastern province is home to a restive Shi’ite minority.)

Shi’ite Iran has championed the cause of Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, which amid political turmoil elsewhere in the Arab world stepped up demands early last year for reforms from the Sunni monarchy that has ruled for more than two centuries.

Bahrain, an island linked to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile causeway, has a population of just over one million, more than a third of whom are non-nationals. Shi’ites comprise about 70 percent of the Bahraini population.

For the Iran-wary Gulf states – and the United States – the stakes are high: Strategically-located just 150 miles from the Iranian coast, Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and U.S. Naval Headquarters Central Command. It is also one of just four countries to enjoy the status of “major non-NATO ally” of the U.S.

After sometimes violent protests, Bahrain in March 2011 invited troops from Saudi Arabia and other neighbors to help restore stability. Lower-level protests have continued periodically, and at least 50 people are reported to have died as a result of the unrest. The government has offered some concessions, but has also arrested hundreds of opposition supporters.

The GCC, whose other four members are Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, has accused Iran of stoking the uprising in Bahrain in the hope of seeing the monarchy replaced by a Tehran-friendly Shi’ite regime. Apart from the sectarian links, Iran has longstanding territorial claims to the island, and an advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2007 described Bahrain as a “province” of Iran.

Saudi King Abdullah’s proposal for a GCC union has been welcomed by Bahrain’s King Hamad, who said on arrival in Riyadh Monday the plan was a “response to changes and challenges that face us on international and regional fronts.” Opposition groups in Bahrain, however, called for new protests against the plan.

Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal told reporters at the end of the summit that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, even if it developed into a closer union, had “nothing to do” with Iran.

The Saudi proposals remain vague, with some proponents suggesting a European Union-type arrangement.

Earlier attempts at integration among the 31 year-old GCC, including a push for a common currency and customs union, have run into difficulties, however.

‘Enormous challenges’

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday the U.S. has “for a number of years, encouraged closer security cooperation among the Gulf countries.”

Asked whether the administration would be concerned about the prospect of an arms race between Arab Gulf states and Iran, she replied, “the posture of those nations and our work with them is primarily designed to provide external defense and external security against threats that they face from wherever they come. This is not directed in an offensive manner in any way.”

In contrast to its vocal support for opposition movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, the Obama administration responded cautiously to the unrest in Bahrain, despite the country’s poor human rights record.

Last October, it did delay the sale of a planned military package to the country, pending the conclusion of an investigation into alleged abuses by security forces there. On Friday, the State Department announced the U.S. would now release some items and services “for the purpose of helping Bahrain maintain its external defense capabilities.”

The released items do not include anything used for crowd control, and 44 Humvees and tear gas launchers are among equipment in the original purchase deal that remain on hold.

“Bahrain is an important security partner and ally in a region facing enormous challenges,” Nuland said in a statement Friday. “Maintaining our and our partners’ ability to respond to these challenges is a critical component of our commitment to Gulf security.”

She said a number of human rights concerns remain unresolved, and urged both government forces and protestors to “work together to end the violence.”

“The United States believes that addressing the underlying causes of last year’s unrest and undertaking meaningful political and institutional reforms are critical to Bahrain’s stability and the strength of our countries’ longstanding partnership.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow