This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 21/05/2011
Now I've really seen it all. It's bad enough that Western countries — those same Western countries that launched wars of aggression on Iraq and Afghanistan — have been putting out holier than thou statements regarding Bahrain, the Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr has got in on the act. I'm amazed at the sheer audacity of the man.
In the first place, he's been staging rallies all over Iraq from Mosul to Basra supposedly in support of the Bahrain people suffering from ‘oppression' — or in other words inflaming tensions between the Bahrainis and their government. And then, after trying to stir things up, he feigns concern at the situation, announcing approvingly that the Qatari Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani "has promised to mediate a solution to the crisis in Bahrain and that he would personally meet with Arab presidents and kings to resolve this crisis."
If Al Sadr was so interested in peaceably resolving the crisis then why is he going out of his way to pour fuel on the embers? Al Sadr may be Iraqi but, in fact, he's Iran's man and has no business meddling in the affairs of GCC states. Lest we forget, it's worth reiterating that Al Sadr's Shiite militia the Mahdi Army is responsible for the deaths of thousands during 2006-2007 when sectarian conflict was at its peak in Iraq. The Mahdi Army was considered so ruthless that a Pentagon report described it as a greater threat to Iraq's security than even Al Qaida in Iraq.
At one time, an Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant in Al Sadr's name for the murder of a moderate Shiite leader that was quashed by the US under the conditions of a negotiated truce. In 2008, Tehran persuaded Al Sadr to relinquish control of Basra in favour of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government when he promptly travelled to Iran ostensibly to study in the Iranian city of Qom announcing he hoped to become an ayatollah. He returned to his homeland when Iran brokered eight seats in the Iraqi parliament for his bloc.
Al Sadr's role
Given that Iran is the premier instigator of Bahrain's current troubles, Al Sadr's ‘peacemaking' is highly suspect. It's not difficult to know where Tehran stands. Just turn to the country's English-language news network Press TV to get the message loud and clear; it's the only satellite channel that has rolling negative news slamming Bahrain's rulers as well as Saudi Arabia for helping secure the Gulf island state.
Just last week, Iran's Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami demanded Saudi Arabia withdraw its forces from Bahrain while urging Bahrainis to "stand up and resist. Know that victory is yours." At the same time Iranian clerics in Qom were chanting "Death to the House of Saud", "Death to the House of Al Khalifa". How those people think they can get away with such blatant hypocrisy is mind-blowing when Iranian dissidents are routinely arrested, beaten, even killed. In February, thousands of Iranian government supporters were chanting for the execution of opposition leaders. Someone should tell the mullahs that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
In reality, neither Al Sadr nor his robed colleagues in Qom care about the well being of the Bahraini people. Their real goal is to expand Iran's influence in the Gulf, which the overthrow of the Bahraini monarchy for a Shiite-controlled government would facilitate. Iran has made territorial claims on Bahrain in the past and last month, the Chief of Staff of Iran's Armed Forces General Hassan Firouzabadi really let the cat out of the bag. "The Persian Gulf has always, is and shall always belong to Iran," he said.
That shocking statement from such a prominent Iranian military figure was denounced by the Secretary-General of the GCC Dr Abdul Latif Bin Rashid Al Zayani as an aggressive indication of Iran's expansionist ambitions. "The Gulf belongs to all states on its shores, and Iran has no right to claim otherwise as it owns nothing from the Gulf but its territorial waters," he said, calling the general's remarks ‘irresponsible' and warning of their negative effect on Iranian-GCC relations. No one welcomes tanks patrolling the streets of Manama. But as long as Bahrain has such an avaricious, meddling neighbour, Bahrain's government has to remain vigilant against those within who would like nothing more than to hand over Bahrain to Tehran's keeping. Moreover, Bahrain is too small to have the luxury of tolerating riots that erode its reputation of being a secure and stable place to do business.
Permitting anarchists to bring Bahrain to the edge of chaos would have been detrimental to the majority of peace-loving Bahrainis appreciative of their high standard of living but also to the security of the Gulf as a whole. The crackdown isn't something the Bahraini authorities wanted but unless they were prepared to gift wrap their country for the mullahs, they had no choice. Any Iranian military or civil presence in Bahrain which borders Saudi Arabia would be a provocation potentially destabilising the entire region.
If Al Sadr is at a loss for something useful to do, he should stay focused on Iraq's problems or get involved in Iran's. They have enough to keep him busy for the next 50 years. The rulers and the peoples of the Gulf are more than capable of sorting out their own.
Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and chairman of Al Habtoor Group.