The worsening Syrian civil war and purse-strings tightened by Western sanctions have produced unforeseen changes in Iran’s Gulf priorities: Tehran has turned away from its sponsorship of lingering Shiite unrest against the Bahrain monarchy and is aiming for bigger fish, Saudi Arabia.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources point to an apparently trivial diplomatic encounter in Manama on Oct. 14. Bahraini Undersecretary Hamad al-Amerin summoned Iran's charge d'affaires to protest his country’s "interference" in the Gulf kingdom’s internal affairs.
He accused Tehran of inciting “sedition and sectarianism" among Bahrain’s Shiite majority against the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, although it has been going on for 21 months. The Bahraini official dismissed as “false” claims in the Iranian media that Manama had asked Tehran to mediate in its domestic strife.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Gulf sources in the Gulf report that that is exactly what Bahrain did ask of Tehran in secret contacts through Gulf-based businessmen with connections in both capitals. They passed on to members of the Al-Khalifa royal family the news they had picked up from their Iranian contacts that Tehran was willing, in certain circumstances, to curtail its support for the Shiite revolt against the Bahraini throne.
The Shiite community accounts for 60 percent of the small kingdom’s population of 1.4 million.
For some weeks now, closed-door Iranian-Bahraini talks have been taking place in Oman, ending nearly two years of Iran-fomented disturbances which cost the lives of 80 Shiites and had thousands thrown into prison.
Tehran can’t afford a stake in Bahrain while filling Assad’s war chest
According to our sources, Iran was driven to revise its regional expansionist aspirations by four untoward events:
1. Hizballah activists from Lebanon, the live wires behind the anti-throne agitation in Bahrain, have been quietly leaving their posts. They are urgently needed in Syria to fight for Bashar Assad. A skeleton command group of around 14 agents stayed behind. But if Tehran decided to reignite the Shiite disturbances as a regular insurgency, it would have to put in hundreds of agents to replace the departing Hizballah activists.
2. This operation would entail a huge outlay of funds at a time of painful inroads on its national resources by Western sanctions, especially the oil and gas embargo, and its plunging currency.
Iran also carries the huge expense of propping up the Assad regime, making a one-billion dollar transfer every four to six weeks to Assad’s war chest.
3. Iranian strategists have figured that expenditure on Bahrain is a waste of funds and effort so long as Riyadh stays determined to defend the neighboring kingdom against Iranian aspirations, whatever the cost. The Saudi expeditionary force will therefore stay there indefinitely. Given Riyadh’s deep pockets and Tehran’s economic straits, Iran has decided to account Bahrain a write-off.
Tehran set on punishing Saudis for backing Syrian rebels
4. At the start of their secret negotiations in Oman, the Iranian side assured the royal Al-Khalifa emissaries that steps were in train to gradually calm Shiite unrest in their kingdom.
But Tehran kept its cards close to its chest about its next target. While withdrawing from Bahrain, Iran is stepping up its intervention in the Arabian Peninsula to get at Saudi Arabia through its back door, turbulent Yemen.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, Tehran has taken the money saved from Bahrain and invested it in a bigger venture – a gift of weapons to buy the loyalty of tribal and clan elders in South Yemen. Iran has homed in on adherents of the movement known as the “Southern Engine of Yemen” which centers on the important port of Aden and is fighting for the secession of the South from the Republic of Yemen.
So instead spending money on a no-win battle for a small Gulf kingdom – which also hosts the US Fifth Fleet Command – Iran has gone after more profitable strategic pickings in the northwestern tip of the Gulf of Aden. From there, Tehran will try and outflank Saudi Arabia from the south and seize control of the Bab al-Mandab Straits, the southern gateway from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
To counter Iran’s designs, Saudi agents are forking out huge sums to regain the loyalty of the Yemeni tribes who have gone over to Tehran.
The Syrian conflict is a factor in this contest too. The view in Washington and Riyadh is that Iran made its move in South Yemen to punish Saudi Arabia for its military and intelligence support for the Syrian rebellion.