The accord reached between Saudi King Abdullah and the Bahraini monarch Hamas bin Isa Al Khalifa for the oil island's virtual annexation by Riyadh has so incensed Tehran that armed Iranian-Saudi clashes with the potential for all-out warfare may soon become unavoidable, debkafile's Iranian and Gulf sources estimate. Shiite-ruled Iraq would back Tehran in the first Shiite-Sunni collision to be sparked by the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world – in contrast to the domestic discord raging in Libya and Yemen.
In the third week of March, debkafile reveals, King Hamad agreed to hand over to Riyadh control Bahrain's defense, external, financial and domestic security affairs. The Saudi king's son Prince Mutaib was confirmed by the two monarchs as commander of the Saudi and GCC forces invited to enter the tiny kingdom to put down the Shiite-led uprising, and it was agreed that Saudi Arabia would soon start building a big naval base on the island opposite the Iranian coastline.
The accord between the Saudi and Bahraini monarchs appeared for the first time in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 487 on March 25. It revealed then that King Hamad had allowed his realm to become the de facto 14th province of Saudi Arabia in order to block the Shiite uprising against him and its knock-on impact on Saudi Arabia's two million restive Shiites next door.
Neither Riyadh nor Manama has made the pact public. The Bahraini province of Saudi Arabia will differ from the other 13 in that it will not be governed by a Saudi prince like the others but by a member of the Al Khalifa royal family who will enjoy equal royal privileges with his Saudi peers.
Our sources report that in closed meetings with senior Saudi princes, King Abdullah explained the fundamental importance of this step for the kingdom's national security. He reported that Iran and its Hizballah surrogate were actively stirring up Shiite opposition in Manama as the first step toward fomenting a Shiite uprising against the Saudi throne.
On March 21, Riyadh resolved to expand the terms of reference of the Saudi-Gulf military intervention requested by King Hamad. Instead of just safeguarding the royal palace and strategic facilities against rampaging protesters, our sources report, it was decided to expand the mission to guarding Bahrain's borders against external attack – i.e. Iran or Iraq.
To this end, Saudi troop reinforcements have been pouring into Bahrain from the last week of March, including armored units and a variety of missiles. debkafile's military sources estimate that some 11,000 Saudi and United Arab Emirates boots have hit the ground in Bahrain since then.
Four days later, on March 25, Manama announced that planes taking off from Iraq or Lebanon would not be permitted to land in the kingdom, thereby cutting of the main route used by Iran and Hizballah to bring over intelligence agents and military instructors to aid the Shiite opposition.
The second important military step afoot at present is the transfer of Saudi fleet units from the Gulf of Oman and Red Sea to the military section of Bahrain's port, where the US Fifth Fleet has its headquarters and berths its ships. This is a provisional facility, to serve the Saudis until they finish building a port at Manama for parking their main Persian Gulf naval and marine command center, in response to the expanded facilities on the opposite shore of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' naval and marine raider units.
March 31, the Iranian parliament's security and foreign affairs committee strongly condemned Saudi military steps: "Saudi Arabia knows better than any other country that playing with fire in the sensitive Persian Gulf region is not in their interests," said the statement.
Since then, Iranian media have not stopped denouncing Saudi actions in Bahrain, likening them to Saddam Hussein's 1990 conquest of Kuwait which triggered the first Gulf War against Iraq. Riyadh was even accused of accepting clandestine US and Israeli support.
Then, Saturday, April 2, Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chipped in by reviling US Middle East policy as discriminating among the popular movements in motion against the different Arab dictatorial regimes: "Whatever decision is made on Libya should be applied to any government that suppresses its people with iron and fire," he said.
Sunday, April 3, the threatening recriminations coming from Tehran and Baghdad prompted the Gulf Cooperation Council to hold a special foreign ministers' meeting. It passed a resolution which "severely condemned Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain in violation of international pacts."
Language this blunt has never before been heard from GCC leaders. It is attributed by our Gulf sources to Saudi King Abdullah's adamant resolve to challenge Tehran headon on every issue affecting the Gulf region's security, to the point of Saudi military intervention when called for – even at the risk of precipitating an armed clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Islamic Republic finds itself confronted with its first forthright, no-nonsense challenge: If it backs down in the face of Saudi military activism, the Shiite communities across the region will conclude that Iran is both unable and unwilling to stand up for the Shiite-Arab revolt against Sunni regimes – whether in Bahrain, in other Gulf emirates or in Yemen and Lebanon.
Iraqi Prime Minister al Maliki faces the same quandary with regard to Iraqi Shiites who consider Bahraini coreligionists to be an integral part of their tribes and clans.
It is taken for granted by Saudi Arabia, Gulf capitals and Western military and intelligence observers that Tehran has been pushed into a corner from which it cannot afford to pull back from its overarching commitment to sponsor Bahrain's Shiites. The Iranians are therefore expected to send their Bahraini Shiite networks into terrorist action against Saudi military targets very soon. Riyadh is already braced for these assaults – and not just in Bahrain but in other GCC states including Saudi Arabia proper.
They will not go unanswered; hence the dire predictions among seasoned observers that armed hostilities between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia may at some point become unavoidable.