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Iran: Ahmadinejad's Bahrain Visit New Piece In Complex Pattern

Bahrain's ruler Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa (file) (epa) November 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad makes a trip to the Gulf island state of Bahrain on November 17 to meet with Bahraini ruler Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa.

Ahmadinejad and the emir should have much to talk about during the Iranian leader's one-day visit to Manama.

Bahrain is former Persian territory, and an Iranian desire to reclaim it arose again recently, shocking the island state's leadership. Bahrain's crown prince recently became the first Arab leader to publicly accuse Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. His kingdom is also the base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which could play an important role if hostilities erupt between Iran and the United States.

Old Claim Resurfaces

Tehran's old territorial claim to Bahrain was resurrected by a senior journalist who is also reputed to be an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Kayhan" Editor-in-Chief Hoseyn Shari'atmadari wrote in July that Bahrain should be returned to Iran.

Regional analyst Mustafa Alani, the director of security at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, is critical of this claim emerging from a source so close to the Iranian leadership. "Basically the Iranian behavior is not acceptable on this issue," he says.

"The Shi'a community in Bahrain has strong links with Iran. A peaceful and good relation with Iran helps stability in the kingdom [and] this is why the [Bahraini leadership] believes a good relationship with Iran is necessary." -- analyst Mustafa Alani

Bahrain was indeed Persian territory in the 19th century. The British -- the power in the Persian Gulf at that time -- took a 99-year lease on the islands. Once it expired, Britain gave Bahrain independence in 1971, following a UN-supervised referendum.

Iran at the time was handed the disputed Greater and Lesser Tunb islands, and in exchange for that it agreed to put aside its claim to Bahrain, which has a mostly Shi'a Arab citizenry.

'Nuclear Lies'

The tension inherent in Iranian-Bahraini relations was sharpened by the recent assertion of Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin-Hamad al-Khalifa that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. The statement -- in a November 2 interview in the British daily "The Times" -- was an unusually blunt reference by an Arab leader to Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran claims is solely for peaceful purposes.

The prince said straight out that Iran was developing a bomb, or the capability for it --- thus becoming the first of Iran's Persian Gulf neighbors to accuse Tehran of lying about its nuclear program.

The prince also said the whole region could be drawn into any military conflict and called on India, as well as Russia, to help find a diplomatic solution to the present standoff.

Some see a link between the crown prince's comments and Ahmadinejad's visit two weeks later.

This is a tense time for Iran, as Western pressure mounts over the nuclear accusations and Iran's role in Iraq. The last thing that Tehran wants is for Arab neighbors to side openly with those who are convinced that Iran is hiding its true intentions.

The territorial claim led to protests in Bahrain in July (AFP)

Massoumeh Torfeh of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies tells RFE/RL that the Iranian leader could be aiming to deliver a warning to the Bahrainis that the kingdom could "put itself in danger" by such direct accusations.

Torfeh says Ahmadinejad could encourage the prince to retract his statement. She notes that Iranian press reports of the prince's comments claimed his remarks were "distorted."

She also says "Ahmadinejad is extremely nervous -- despite his pretenses to the contrary -- that an American attack on Iran could become a reality."

Analyst Alani says the Iranian involvement with nuclear power has put the six countries of the pro-Western Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Bahrain is a member, under pressure to develop their own nuclear expertise.

"The GCC feels we have the necessity now to develop at least the know-how in the field of nuclear energy," Alani says. "But the GCC program, unlike the Iranian program, will be under the supervision of the [International Atomic Energy Agency], and it's going to be a peaceful research program."

Despite the multiple tensions, Bahrain is constrained to cultivate the best ties it can with Tehran, Alani says.

"Bahrainis need Iran for a very simple reason: There's the question of the Shi'a community in Bahrain, which has strong links with Iran," he says. "A peaceful and good relation with Iran helps stability in the kingdom [and] this is why the [Bahraini leadership] believes a good relationship with Iran is necessary."

Sunni-Shi'a Tensions

Shi'as compose some 70 percent of Bahrain's population, while the elite are mostly Sunnis. Long-standing tensions between the two communities came into the open after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

Apparently inspired by the revolution, Shi'ite fundamentalists in Bahrain tried to stage a coup in 1981 that was aimed at installing a Shi'ite theocratic government in Manama. After it failed, the Sunni-led Bahraini government cracked down on Shi'a, and many were jailed. The suspicion lingered that Tehran was involved in the coup attempt, but Iran has always denied that.

Alireza Nourizadeh, the director of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, says that bilateral relations improved greatly under the presidency of Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. But he says they have deteriorated again since Ahmadinejad took over in 2005.

"This also can be sourced back to the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Whenever [Shi'ia-led] Tehran enjoyed good relations with [Sunni-led] Saudi Arabia, relations with Bahrain were also very close," he says. "Now it seems that the visit of Mr. Ahmadinejad may bring back relations to the point where Khatami left off."

U.S. Presence

Another factor that deeply complicates Iranian-Bahraini relations is the fact that Bahrain is the home port of the powerful U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Ships and aircraft of the U.S. Fifth fleet (AFP)

The presence of the fleet is a constant reminder that the United States intends to keep open the Gulf, the waterway through which much of the world's oil supplies are shipped.

Positioned strategically halfway between Kuwait at the head of the Gulf and the narrow strait of Hormuz at its entrance, the fleet also faces the entire south coast of Iran. In the event of any military hostilities between Iran and the United States, the 5th Fleet's ships and aircraft could play a key role.

For Bahrain, however, the situation is as usual difficult. A staunch ally of the West, Bahrain risks the wrath of Iran in the event of conflict.

The Bahraini government has pledged that it will not allow its territory to be used to wage a conflict with any of its neighbors. But it is difficult to see in practical terms how that would work, given the logistical support provided by a home base to a fleet at sea.

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