Why Bahrain's Shiite majority is restless despite election gains
Bahrain's Shiite majority now holds 18 of 40 seats in parliament. But Shiites are increasingly upset with the Sunni monarchy, which arrested 23 dissidents in the run-up to this week's election.
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Driving a wedge
The government has tried to drive a wedge between the Shiites and Sunnis, who share many of the same grievances. It has sought to depict the Shiites as an Iranian fifth column that threatens Sunni rule on the island.Skip to next paragraph
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Bahrain was ruled by an Iranian dynasty between the 16th and 18th centuries and Tehran only gave up its claim to the island in 1970.
And amidst the revolutionary fervor that brought them to power in 1979, the mullahs in Iran sought to export their revolution to neighboring countries. In 1981, the Bahraini government announced that it had arrested 71 people affiliated with an-Iranian backed group that sought to overthrow the regime.
Tehran has long renounced trying to undermine other Islamic nations but Bahrain's monarchy overstates Iran's influence to keep disgruntled Sunnis in line. The monarchy has claimed to have uncovered Iranian-backed plots to overthrow the monarchy, but has never proffered credible proof to back them.
Yet though the island’s Shiites identify with their Iranian coreligionists, they deny that their loyalties lie beyond their borders.
“Iran is a source of Shiite power, and we see it the way Jews in America view Israel,” explains Sheikh Ali Salman, the political leader of al-Wefaq, the largest Shiite political party, who studied in the Iranian religious center of Qom. “Not speaking out against Israel when they disagree with its policies doesn’t mean their loyalties lie with Israel. It is no different with us and Iran.”
Demonizing the Shiites and highlighting the Iranian threat also curries favor with Bahrain’s patrons in Saudi Arabia. As the Sunni power in the Persian Gulf, the Saudis have long feared the Iranians harbor regional aspirations that would weaken Riyadh’s position in the Arab and Islamic worlds. And the current impasse over Tehran’s nuclear program has stoked a strong fire.
By calling attention to the Iranian threat, the Bahrainis assure that the Saudis will come to their defense.
Riyadh has responded to Bahrain’s alarm in the past by propping up the regime. It offers the island nation financial subsidies and allows it to draw from an off-shore oil field.
Election day passed with relatively few irregularities but this came after weeks of government efforts to stifle the oppositions message by controlling the media and tampering with campaign efforts. There is a popular belief on the street that Bahrain’s allies have allowed security concerns – real or perceived – to trump democratic values.