Stalled Talks in Bahrain and Iran's Growing Assertiveness

4 MINS READMar 2, 2011 | 19:44 GMT
Negotiations between the opposition and the Bahraini regime, which had been expected to begin within days, appear to have stalled for the moment. The lack of progress toward talks coincides with the arrival of Shiite opposition figure Hassan Mushaima from exile. As the secretary-general of the hard-line Haq bloc, Mushaima has encouraged the opposition to press for more concessions from the regime. His moves since his return strongly suggest he enjoys Iranian support and may be prolonging the standoff at Tehran's behest — and even if he is not, his move to stall talks has played into Iran's hands.
Thousands of protesters gathered outside the Bahraini Interior Ministry on March 2, the 17th consecutive day of rallies and the largest thus far this week. The Bahraini regime appears increasingly concerned over its lack of progress on tamping down the unrest, with Bahraini Social Development Minister Fatima al-Balooshi saying King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa was "afraid of seeing the country split." The king has already pardoned hundreds of jailed Shiite activists since demonstrations began, reshuffled the Bahraini Cabinet and tasked his reform-minded son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, with negotiating with the opposition. These negotiations seemed to be on track just days ago, when seven opposition groups and Bahrain's largest trade union announced their reform demands on Feb. 23, but they appear to have halted following the arrival of prominent Shiite opposition figure Hassan Mushaima from a six-month exile in the United Kingdom — and the timing may not be a coincidence. Mushaima has long challenged the legitimacy of the Bahraini monarchy and has already pushed the opposition to take a harder-line stance against the regime. Unlike the main Shiite opposition party Al Wefaq, from which his Haq party split following Al Wefaq's decision to participate in the 2006 parliamentary elections, Mushaima is less willing to discuss reforms, and his moves since his return strongly suggest he enjoys Iranian support. The Iranians may be using Mushaima as a tool to slow efforts on ending the political stalemate, but even if they are not, any way the crisis is prolonged will be welcomed by Tehran. As secretary-general of the Haq party, Mushaima opposed the constitution enacted in Bahrain in 2002, accusing the king of reneging on some his promises in the 2001 National Action Charter that changed the Bahraini government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, including giving himself more authority to control the parliament by directly appointing members of the upper house. Mushaima was one of 25 Shiite politicians charged with plotting to topple the al-Khalifa regime in October 2010 and had been in exile in Britain until Feb. 26, after the government announced that he would not be arrested. Since his return, Mushaima has been encouraging street demonstrations to ramp up the pressure on the Bahraini regime —demonstrations that, whether directed by Iran or not, are in line with Tehran's goal to stall the negotiation process. In what suggests a strong Iranian hand behind Mushaima's political agenda, he said in a Feb. 28 interview with Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar (which has close ties to Hezbollah) that if Saudi Arabia intervenes in Bahraini affairs, Iran has the same right to do so. This statement was followed by a report in Iranian state-run media that Saudi Arabia sent tanks to Bahrain to quell the unrest, which was quickly denied by both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Iran likely sees Bahrain and its impoverished Shiite community as the linchpin to spread unrest in the Persian Gulf. According to a STRATFOR diplomatic source in Qatar, Tehran may be trying to exploit each opposition group, such as Al Wefaq, Waad, Amal, At-Tajammu' Al-Qawmi, Al-Minbar Al-Taqaddumi, and Al-Wasat Al-Arabi Al-Islami, to further stir the unrest in Bahrain, though some of these parties are unlikely to fall into the Iranian orbit. In any case, the tension in the Bahraini streets appears to have increased since Mushaima's return. There is a rapidly emerging fissure between the growing number of protesters who demand the overthrow of the al-Khalifa regime entirely and opposition groups that seem to be ready to talk with Crown Prince Salman. Mushaima and his Haq party (which did not take part in opposition groups' demands from the regime), however, have been using the rifts between the protesters and opposition groups to both stall the negotiation process and leverage itself against the larger Al Wefaq party. The same source indicated that Tehran's current plan aims to increase the level of anti-regime protests on the streets in the hope that it will lead to violent clashes between protesters and Bahraini security forces and will add to resentment against the regime. The source also said Iran wants to get Sunnis to rally behind the Shiite opposition to portray the street movements as non-sectarian to force concessions from the Bahraini regime. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen, as the Bahraini regime is well aware of the risks of using force against protesters and has repeated its willingness to negotiate. But with Mushaima's return to the country, Iran now has another tool to assert itself in Bahrain as part of its larger struggle to alter the balance in the Persian Gulf in its favor.

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