(CNSNews.com) – Turkey’s foreign minister visited Bahrain on Tuesday but did not publicly voice support for the small Gulf nation’s decision last month to invite troops from Saudi Arabia and other neighbors to help restore stability.
Instead, it was left to his Bahraini counterpart, Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, to defend the decision and fend off Iranian charges that the arrival of the Saudi forces was akin to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
“I hope they [the Iranians] realize that what is going on in Bahrain is different from what is going on in their minds and stop such statements that do not help in strengthening relations,” Khalifa said at a joint press conference with the Turk, Ahmet Davutoglu.
On the eve of his visit, Davutoglu spoke by phone with his Iranian counterpart. According to Iranian state media, the two stressed the importance of Bahrain resolving its current crisis – anti-government protests that erupted in mid-February – “without foreign interference.”
Shi’ite Iran has accused Sunni Saudi Arabia and other members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of helping Bahrain’s minority Sunni rulers crack down on the island’s restive Shi’ite majority. Iran also accused the U.S. of giving the go-ahead for the Saudi deployment.
For their part, GCC members say it is Iran that is stoking the unrest in the strategically-significant Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and just 150 miles from the Iranian coast.
Iran has historical links with and territorial claims to Bahrain (an advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2007 described Bahrain as a “province” of Iran and said Bahrainis wanted to be ruled by Tehran).
The turmoil has raised some concerns about the prospect of the replacement of the Sunni monarchy that has ruled for more than two centuries with an Iran-friendly Shi’ite government.
The role Turkey may play remains unclear.
Seeking to exert its leadership in the region, Turkey – like Iran an Islamic but not Arab Middle East country – has established closer ties with Tehran in recent years, to the dismay of its allies in NATO.
It has also offered itself on occasion as a mediator – between Israel and Syria, Syria and Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Israel and Hamas, Iran and the West, and, just this week, between the Libyan regime and anti-Gaddafi rebels.
Davutoglu said Tuesday the crisis in Bahrain was an internal affair, but added that Turkey would be willing to mediate between Iran and the Arab states of the GCC if asked to do so by both parties.
“If there is a demand, Turkey is ready to serve for the benefit of the region,” he said. “The Gulf is a strategic area and its states are the richest. Therefore, looking to the future, if tension is still there it will be a global crisis.”
Davutoglu also warned against sectarian tensions, and said that Bahrain had “always been a good example of Shi’ites and Sunnis living together.”
Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review said ahead of Davutoglu’s trip that Ankara was taking care to ensure the Bahrain visit was not “interpreted as open support for the Sunni administration.” It said he was also expected to meet with opposition groups while in the country.