"The era when Tehran conducted a policy of megalomania, and spoke from a position of superiority, has gone, never to return." – Kuwaiti MP Mubarak Al-Wa'lan
The deployment of Saudi and Gulf military forces to Bahrain in mid-March 2011 to suppress the Iran-supported popular Shi'ite uprising there was a seminal event in the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict, redrawing the lines between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis. Iran's defeat in this crisis has far-reaching ramifications for the reshaping of power relations in the region.
A month after the beginning of the unrest in Bahrain – which was clearly Shi'ite vs. Sunni in nature, as underlined by Iran's expressions of support for the demands of the Bahraini Shi'ites – Saudi Arabia, together with the Gulf states, launched a military move, sending some 1,000 Saudi troops from the Peninsula Shield Force to Bahrain. This military move, based on the Gulf Cooperation Council states' joint defense pact, was aimed at helping the Bahraini authorities suppress the demonstrations.
In a March 14, 2011 meeting in the Bahraini capital Manama, with Bahraini King Hamed bin 'Issa Aal Khalifa, Bahrain Crown Prince Emir Suleiman bin Hamed bin 'Issa Aal Khalifa, and Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamed bin Jassem Aal Thani, Saudi Foreign Minister Emir Saud Al-Faisal said that Saudi Arabia supports Bahrain and that Bahrain's security is synonymous with Saudi Arabia's security. He added that the GCC countries all guarantee Bahrain's security and stability.
In fact, by sending its troops to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia determined that the island nation would remain under Sunni sovereignty, sponsored by the Saudi royal house – despite its majority-Shi'ite population. With this move, Saudi Arabia also reinstated the border on this front of the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict – a border that the Islamic Republic of Iran, with its ideology of "exporting the revolution," has tried to destabilize since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power. Iran has attempted such destabilization tactics in other areas as well – notably Iraq, Lebanon, and the Houthi region in Yemen.
Iran's reaction to the Saudi move, from March 2011 to date, has been characterized by passivity. Tehran has not even responded with belligerent statements by its leaders and military commanders – even though these are frequently issued against the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf. It has certainly not carried out a single military measure, not even maneuvers in the area of Bahrain. Also, its threats to use suicide bombers have not been carried out. At this point, several months after the crisis began, it seems clear that that the Iranian government has chosen to use diplomatic activity, with the aim of improving its relations with the Gulf states.
In contrast to the Iranian-Shi'ite passivity in the crisis, the Sunni response took the form of activism on numerous levels. The military move was followed by the closure of dozens of Iranian and Shi'ite media channels by Gulf states; the expulsion of Iranian diplomats by Kuwait; the sharp escalation in anti-Iran rhetoric; calls for economic warfare against Iran through the expulsion of Iranians working in the Gulf; and calls for inciting the Arab Ahwazi population in Iran.
Along with the direct anti-Iran escalation, Saudi Arabia formed a new political/strategic alignment, encouraging its Arab and Sunni and monarchical allies, both within and outside the Gulf, to form a powerful Arab-Sunni Gulf force to stand against Iran and its threats in the Middle East. This force would represent the Arab Middle East to the rest of the world.
Does Iran's passivity in this situation stem from weakness or from strategic considerations that prioritize other means of response, for example, asymmetrical warfare? The length of time that has elapsed since the Saudi move without an Iranian response, not even asymmetrical warfare, indicates that Iran's passivity is due to fear of a frontal military confrontation with the Sunni world. This also explains Iran's response on the diplomatic level – i.e. the effort to calm the crisis in Bahrain and to normalize its disrupted relations with the Gulf states.
This paper will analyze Iran's response and motives in the Bahrain crisis, the significance of these vis-à-vis its Middle East neighbors and the rest of the world, and the ramifications of the Bahrain events for Tehran's future relations with its Arab neighbors.
Tehran's Weakness and Passivity in the Face of the Saudi "Invasion of Bahrain"
"The invasion of Bahrain," as Iranian spokesmen termed the Saudi intervention, is a powerful challenge aimed at preserving and enforcing the status quo between the Shi'ites (Iran) and the Sunnis (Saudi Arabia, the ally of the U.S. and the West).
Despite Bahrain's historic, ethnic, and religious ties to Iran, and special Iranian sentiment towards Bahrain, Iran's essential failure to respond to the deployment of Sunni forces in Bahrain means that Tehran has ceded Bahrain to the Sunni world.
It should be emphasized that in contrast to the image that it has been cultivating in recent years, i.e. that of a regional military superpower that intimidates its neighbors and the West, Tehran has in this instance chosen not to deploy military forces, even in a token gesture; in addition, its generals, who regularly issue threats against the Gulf states, have uttered not a word in response to this Sunni action. While Tehran shows strength by dispatching fleets of battleships to the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean Sea and submarines to the Red Sea, and conducts wide-scale multi-force maneuvers in the region, it has so far not launched military maneuvers, either naval or land, against Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Not only that, but the Iranian authorities ordered an Iranian civilian protest/solidarity flotilla, that had set sail in mid-May for Bahraini waters, to return home; the flotilla consisted of two ships with 120 Iranian civilians aboard and was recalled after Kuwait threatened to use its forces in the region against it.
Tehran's response to the Bahrain crisis can be summed up as one of military passivity, in both word and deed. Its response was confined to condemning Saudi Arabia and the Aal-Saud and Bahraini Aal-Khalifa royal houses (calling them traitors, lackeys of the West and the U.S., occupiers of holy places, dictatorial regimes whose fate is already sealed, etc.) and also blaming the events in Bahrain on the U.S. and the West, saying that their lackeys Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were doing their bidding.
Moreover, although Iran frequently criticizes the Arab Gulf states for turning to the West for help, in this crisis Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi appealed to the E.U., and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself turned to the U.N. On March 30, Salehi spoke with E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, after Syrian mediation attempts failed, demanding clarification of the E.U.'s stand vis-à-vis the situation in Bahrain and the region. On April 4, President Ahmadinejad appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, complaining about European and U.S. intervention in Middle East affairs to protect their own interests, and called on him to stop this, saying: "The hypocrisy of the Western governments, that is, what they are doing in Libya and what they are doing in Bahrain... shows the inconsistency of their actions in the world."
The only Iranian aggression was Iran's threat of asymmetrical warfare – that is, terrorism. Iranian organizations launched online campaigns to recruit volunteers for suicide operations, and even senior regime officials called on Shi'ites in Bahrain to become martyrs. It should be noted that none of these calls were implemented.
The Sunni Response: Anti-Iran Activism
In late March 2011, and after the Iranian response to the crisis was revealed as weak, further Gulf Sunni activity against Iran was launched: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries worked to shut down Iranian media channels; Tehran was again accused of inciting the Shi'ite population and fomenting the unrest in Bahrain, and of running spy networks; Kuwait expelled two Iranian diplomats; and Saudi Arabia intensified its tone towards Iran, insisting that Tehran stop interfering in the domestic affairs of the Gulf states.
In this context, a notable statement was made by Kuwaiti MP Mubarak Al-Wa'lan, who objected to the May 18 Kuwait visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and called on Tehran to apologize to Kuwait and the other GCC member states for its subversive declarations and its interference in their domestic affairs. He called Salehi a "persona non grata" in Kuwait and added that he should know that "the era when Tehran conducted a policy of megalomania, and spoke from a position of superiority, has gone, never to return."
But the main Sunni response was a Saudi-led two-pronged acceleration of buildup of regional Sunni might. The first aspect was by conventional means – creating a united Gulf army and consolidating a powerful and expanded Gulf force (the GCC accepted Jordan and Morocco, both Sunni and both monarchies, as new members), and the second was by advancing the nuclear option. At a conference in Abu Dhabi, former Saudi Ambassador to Washington Emir Turki Al-Faisal, who is currently chairman of the King Faisal Center for Islamic Studies called for turning the GCC into a "a union after the fashion of the European Union," and to "establish a united Gulf army." Hinting at Iran, he said that "others" should be prevented from "forcing their choices on us in order to weaken our military might." He added that there was nothing preventing Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear weapons, if efforts to persuade Iran to give up its military nuclear program and rid the Middle East of WMDs failed.
Iran's Reaction to the Sunni Activism: Conciliatory Efforts, Diplomatic Outreach
The response of regime circles to this new wave of accusations from the Gulf states included a Majlis National Security Committee communiqué directed at Saudi Arabia, that called on Riyadh "not to play with fire," and harsh criticism by Tehran Friday prayer leader Ahmad Jannati in his April 1 sermon.
However, the reaction from government circles included a conciliatory phone call from Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi to his Kuwaiti counterpart. It should be noted that Salehi, who took up his post after the Bahrain crisis was already underway, said on March 30 that Tehran was determined to advance its foreign relations, particularly with its Muslim neighbors and with the E.U. He added that Iran's plans, outlined in accordance with the new situation in the region (referring to the popular uprisings in the Arab world) were shaped so as to serve the interests of Iran and the Muslim countries against the arrogant forces, i.e. the U.S. and its allies.
Starting in May 2011, the Ahmadinejad government pursued its conciliatory policy vis-à-vis the Gulf states with increasing enthusiasm: Salehi set out on a trip around the region, landing in Qatar on May 2, Oman on May 4, the UAE on May 8, Baghdad on May 11, and Kuwait on May 18. Apparently, he had also planned to visit Saudi Arabia, but the Middle East Online website reported that the Saudis had turned down his request to visit Riyadh. The website also reported that Qatar had refused Tehran's request to mediate between it and Riyadh.
In all his visits across the Gulf, Salehi called for withdrawing the Gulf forces from Bahrain, and also stressed that Iran sought to improve its relations with its neighbors. It should be noted that in late May, there were again reports that Salehi was planning a visit to Saudi Arabia, but Salehi himself denied any such intention.
Characteristics of Iran's Activity
The defeat of Tehran in the Bahrain crisis reveals Shi'ite Iran's limitations, on both the strategic and military levels, vis-à-vis the Sunni world. The following are characteristics of Iran's activity vis-à-vis the Sunni world:
- Efforts to create an image of itself as a superpower with great conventional military capabilities, along with its buildup of a two-pronged strategic force: long-range missile and nuclear capabilities.
- Activity far beyond its borders, through political impact and material and ideological support of various forces and regimes – such as in Latin America and Africa.
- In the Middle East, an effort to act by means of protégés and agents in Shi'ite areas in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan (and according to the Gulf countries, also on their soil), so that it is not identified as connected to subversive activity.
- Methods: training local militias and supplying them with weapons; creating active or sleeper spy networks; using incitement on media channels identified with it, and/or airing cultural and language programs; providing funding.
The Political Culture of Shi'ite Iran – Key to Understanding Its Political and Military Behavior
Despite its image as a looming superpower, which revolutionary Iran has sought for years to cultivate, its actual policy reveals a deep recognition of its weakness as a representative of the Shi'ites, who constitute a 10% minority in a Sunni Muslim region. Historically persecuted over centuries, the Shi'ites developed various means of survival, including taqiya – the Shi'ite principle of caution, as expressed in willingness to hide one's Shi'ite affiliation in order to survive under a hostile Sunni rule – and passivity, reflected in the use of diplomacy alongside indirect intimidation, terrorism, etc.
The ideological change pioneered by the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – who transformed the passive perception characteristic of the of the Shi'a (which was based on the legend of the martyrdom of Hussein at the Battle of Karbala) into an active perception of martyrdom (shahada) – is not being carried out by Iran. Tehran is refraining from sending Iranian nationals to carry out martyrdom operations, despite its years-long glorification of this principle. It is also not sending Iranians to Gaza, either on aid missions or to carry out suicide attacks – and this despite the fact that regime-sponsored organizations are recruiting volunteers for such efforts.
Moreover, it appears that the Shi'ite regime in Iran is utilizing the legend of Hussein's martyrdom solely for propaganda purposes, in order to glorify its own might and intimidate the Sunni and Western world. Such intimidation is in keeping with Shi'ite tradition, as a way to conceal Tehran's unwillingness to take overt military action against external challenges.
Tehran's defeat in the Bahrain crisis reflects characteristic Shi'ite restraint, stemming from recognition of its own weakness in the face of the vast Sunni majority. The decade during which Iran successfully expanded its strength and power exponentially via threats and creating an image of superpower military strength has collapsed in the Bahrain crisis; Iran is now revealed as a paper tiger that will refrain from any violent conflict. When it came to the crunch, it became clear that the most that Iran could do was threaten to use terrorism or to subvert the Shi'ite citizens of other countries – in keeping with customary Shi'ite behavior – and these threats were not even implemented.
It can be assumed that the Sunni camp, headed by Saudi Arabia, is fully aware of the political and military significance of Iran's weakness and its unwillingness to initiate face-to-face conflict. This will have ramifications on both the regional and the global levels.
In addition to having its weakness exposed by the Bahrain situation, Tehran has also taken several further hits to its prestige and geopolitical status. These include: the popular uprisings in Syria against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, weakening the Tehran-Damascus axis; post-revolutionary Egypt's refusal to renew relations with Iran; and the fact that the E.U. was capable of uniting and leading a military attack against the regime of Libyan leader Mu'ammar Al-Qadhafi as well as its refusal to renew the nuclear negotiations with Tehran based on Iran's demands. All this, added to the serious internal rift between Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his long-time ally Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have today left the Iranian regime in clearly reduced circumstances.
* A. Savyon is Director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project
 Asr-e Iran (Iran), May 17, 2011.
 Bahraini Interior Minister Rashed bin 'Abdallah Aal Khalifa said that Iran is behind the attempts to topple the Bahraini regime, and not for the first time either. He added that in 1981, Iran was behind a failed coup attempt, and that in the 1990s it established Hizbullah Bahrain and trained its operatives in Syria. Bahrain Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Hamed Aal-Khalifa said that the Lebanese Hizbullah had trained its operatives in many areas in the Gulf, and that the arrest of seven of them in Bahrain was proof of this. Al-Hayat (London); Alarabiya.net, March 30, 2011.
 Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), March 15, 2011. GCC Secretary-General 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Atiyya rejected Iran's March 30 call to withdraw foreign troops from Bahrain, explaining that the Gulf forces were brought in to prevent foreign (i.e. Iranian) intervention there. Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 3, 2011. Kuwaiti military sources reported that the Kuwaiti naval forces in Bahrain as part of the Peninsula Shield Force were there to protect Bahrain's territorial waters from external (i.e. Iranian) attack, and added that any harm to Bahrain would be considered harm to Kuwait. With regard to the Iranian intention to send a solidarity flotilla to Bahrain, the sources warned Iran against testing the GCC's military capabilities. Al-Anbaa (Kuwait), May 14, 2011.
 For example, the UAE paper Gulf News published an April 3, 2011 article titled "Al-Ahwaz will always be Arab." http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/al-ahwaz-will-always-be-arab-1.786524. Salafi MPs in Bahrain Ghanem Abu 'Einan and Jassem Al-Saidi said that they intended to send aid ships to the Ahwazis in Iran, who they said are victims of racial and ethnic discrimination. Abu 'Einan said that after permits were obtained, the Salafi association would send ships with food and medical equipment. Al-Saidi said that preparations had been completed for the dispatch of a mobile hospital, to treat the Ahwazi wounded whom Iranian hospitals refused to treat. Alarabiya.net, May 15, 2011. The Kuwaiti online daily Alaan reported that Kuwaiti MP Muhammad Haif had called on the GCC to support the Ahwazis' demand for independence from Iran, which he said had occupied the region in 1925; Alaan.cc, April 1, 2011. The Iranian website Neda-ye Enqelab stated that the Saudi media, and particularly the Saudi Al-Akhbariyya channel, had launched an inflammatory campaign among the Ahwazi residents of Iran, calling on them to rebel against the Iranian regime. Neda-ye Enqelab, Iran, April 14, 2011.
 For more on this alignment, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 696, "Addition of Jordan and Morocco to Gulf Cooperation Council – A New Sunni Arab Alignment Against Iran," June 15, 2011, Addition of Jordan and Morocco to Gulf Cooperation Council – A New Sunni Arab Alignment Against Iran.
 In 1971, Iran under the Shah relinquished its claims to sovereignty over Bahrain, in an agreement with Britain.
 See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 678, "The Bahrain Situation: Media Clashes Between the Iranian-Shi'ite Camp and the Saudi-Sunni Camp," March 18, 2011, The Bahrain Situation: Media Clashes Between the Iranian-Shi'ite Camp and the Saudi-Sunni Camp.
Tehran's response to the dispatch of the Saudi and Gulf forces – which came a month after the outbreak of the unrest – was primary verbal, when Iran's ayatollahs took an extremely harsh tone vis-à-vis Sunni Saudi Arabia, out of solidarity with the Shi'ites in Bahrain.
 See Al-Anba, Kuwait; Alarabiya.net, Saudi Arabia, May 14, 2011; Fars (Iran), May 16, 2011; Tehran Times (Iran), May 18, 2011; and MEMRI Blog reports: "Iranian News Agency: Solidarity Flotilla En Route To Bahrain," http://www.thememriblog.org/blog_personal/en/37631.htm, and "Iranian Authorities Bring Back Flotilla En Route To Bahrain," http://www.thememriblog.org/iran/blog_personal/en/37669.htm .
 For example, Iranian armed forces chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi called the dispatching of Saudi troops to Bahrain "a mistake," and accused the U.S. of behind it. Press TV (Iran), April 11, 2011.
 Press TV (Iran), March 30, 2011
 Press TV (Iran), April 4, 2011. It can be assumed that the Western military attack, led by Europe, on the Qadhafi regime in Libya had an impact on the decision makers in Iran, since it exposed Europe's willingness to act militarily and in a united fashion. The vehement position of Tehran condemning the Western attack on Libya, despite its enmity for Qadhafi, (whom Ayatollah Jannati had called "crazy"), reveals Iran's fear in light of the discovery that Europe is capable of uniting and initiating a military move to protect its interests.
 The Iranian website Shia-news stated that it had recruited hundreds of volunteers in its campaign to enlist suicide bombers for operations against Saudi interests in the region, and published their names and emails; these included young Iranians as well as Malaysians and Afghans. http://www.shia-news.com/fa/pages/?cid=20441. On May 25, 2011, the Iranian website Ammariyon published a call for recruiting suicide bombers for martyrdom operations in Bahrain, and included registration forms. http://www.ammariyon.ir/fa/pages/?cid=10869
 It was reported that the Saudi authorities were working to jam reception of 32 Shi'ite television networks affiliated with Iran and its supporters, such as Hizbullah's Al-Manar and Iran's Arabic-language channel Al-Alam, across the country. The Kuwaiti authorities shut down the offices of the Iranian networks Al-Kawthar and Al-Anwar, which had called the Gulf rulers "murderers" and said that they were inciting Shi'ites in Bahrain and the other Persian Gulf countries against their rulers. Also, it was reported that Bahrain is working to remove Iran's Press TV from the Nilesat satellite. Khabaronline (Iran), March 31, 2011.
 See, for example, the statements by the Bahraini Interior Minister cited in Note 2.
 He added that even if Iran did apologize it should back up its apology with action. Asr-e Iran (Iran), May 17, 2011.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 22, 2011; Anbacom.com, March 21, 2011. Bahraini Chief of Staff Du'aij bin Salman Al-Khalifa called for the establishment of a joint GCC military force. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, April 4, 2011. Dr. Jamal Sind Al-Suwaidi, director-general of the Center for Strategic Studies and Research in the United Arab Emirates, said that the Gulf states had no choice but to reorganize after the fashion of the European Union, with a united and nuclear-capable military.
 The Majlis committee called on Saudi Arabia to immediately withdraw its troops from Bahrain, and to serve the interests of Bahrain and the rest of the Arab world rather than those of the U.S. Its communiqué said that "it is very clear to Saudi Arabia that playing with fire in a sensitive region such as the Middle East is not in its interests," and that the presence of its troops in Bahrain would only bolster the Bahraini's determination against the "occupiers." According to the committee, the U.S. and Israel, which were behind the "invasion," were the archenemies of the world and were trying to control the Islamic world. Press TV (Iran), March 31, 2011.
 In the conversation, Salehi said that Iran did not customarily interfere in its neighbors' affairs, and underscored the friendly relations between his country and Kuwait since the Saddam era. An Iranian Foreign Ministry source said that the Kuwaiti claims in the matter of an Iranian spy network in Kuwait were groundless. Fars, IRIB (Iran), April 1, 2011.
 Press TV (Iran), March 30, 2011.
 The Iranian website Diplomacy explained that Salehi's visit to Iraq was, among other things, aimed at garnering support from that country, as the Arab state closest to Iran, in order to relieve tensions between Iran and the Gulf states over the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain. Irdiplomacy.ir, May 11, 2011. The website also estimated that the strain between Iran and Saudi Arabia would soon be alleviated, since the latter country needed Iran in order to resolve the crisis in Syria. Irdiplomacy.ir, May 9, 2011. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that Salehi's shuttle campaign was intended to neutralize to the greatest extent possible the Zionists' attempts to sow dissent among the countries of the region. Mehr (Iran), May 10, 2011.
 Sources told the website Middle East Online that Saudi Arabia had stipulated that Salehi would be allowed the visit only if Iran apologized for the attacks on the Saudi consulate in Mashhad and the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Middle-east-online.com, May 8, 2011. An article in Sobh-e Sadeq also stated that the Emir of Qatar had refused to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), May 23, 2011. The news agency Mehr denied that Salehi planned to visit Saudi Arabia. Mehr (Iran), May 8, 2011.
 Mehr (Iran), May 8 and 11, 2011.
 Fars (Iran), June 1, 2011. Regime officials' criticism of Salehi's plans to visit Riyadh should be seen as an expression of the rift between Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, that is, criticism of Ahmadinejad's policy and administration.
 Tehran has directed Hizbullah's activity in Lebanon chiefly against Israel, the common enemy of both Shi'ites and Sunnis. This activity is overt and blatant, as it does not threaten Iran's interests vis-à-vis the Sunnis. However, Iran is far more forehanded and restrained in maneuvering Hizbullah to threaten its Sunni rivals in Lebanon's internal political system. Indeed, Hizbullah has at times been jockeyed to pose threats against these rivals, but as a rule has not followed through. For example, Tehran seems to have worked behind the scenes in orchestrating the collapse of Sa'd Al-Hariri's government. It should be recalled that Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah warned, with Tehran's backing, of bloodshed and civil war in Lebanon should Hariri turn Hizbullah's arms into a central bone of contention, but that when Hariri, in fact, did so, Nasrallah backed down and chose not to make good on these threats.
 Prior to Ayatollah Khomeini, the Ashura ceremonies, which mark the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein in the Battle of Karbala in 680, at the hands of the Sunni Yazid bin Mu'wayya, expressed lament and victimhood, focusing on the oppression and suffering of the Shi'ites. Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, lent the Ashura a new, active and revolutionary content. He turned it into a symbol of the uprising of minorities against powerful oppressors, and the struggle of absolute good against absolute evil, in which the oppressed prefers to die rather than submit or compromise. This transformed the ceremony into a message to the post-revolution generations not to sit idly by and be reconciled to oppressive regimes or unjust rulers, but to fight against them, even if it means certain death.