A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Backgrounder: Iran-Bahrain Flap Threatens Gas Deal

Iran is trying to defuse a sudden storm in the Arab Gulf states over a prominent Iranian cleric's remarks implying Bahrain had been Iranian territory, after Bahrain put a major natural gas deal on hold over the issue. Ayatollah 'Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri reportedly made remarks referring to Bahrain as having formerly been Iran's 14th province, seemingly reviving long-latent claims to the island.

Such assertions are made from time to time by Iranian nationalists; in 2007 an editorial in the newspaper Kayhan made the claim and provoked demonstrations in Bahrain. But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a visit to Bahrain later that year and the gas deal the Bahrainis have now put on hold was the result of that rapprochement; now it may be a victim of a renewed Iranian provocation. This time the remarks were attributed to Nateq-Nuri, former Speaker of Parliament, former Presidential candidate (defeated by Mohammad Khatami), and current member of the powerful Expediency Council. Nateq-Nuri is a senior figure from the conservative wing of the clerical establishment; Bahrain has won support from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the present dispute.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has reasserted that Iran has no territorial claims on its neighbors and recognizes Bahraini sovereignty; it claimed Nateq-Nuri's remarks had been misrepresented and he was not talking about Bahrain, though as quoted he certainly seemed to be.

Various accounts of the flap are here, here, here and here. It is perhaps worth filling in the background a bit, since as noted, this is not the first eruption of Iranian claims against Bahrain.

Bahrain has had human settlement since prehistoric times and was probably the Dilmun referred to in Sumerian texts; in short the islands have been at the center of trade and politics since earliest times and, not surprisingly, at one time or another Bahrain has been ruled by many different hands, including the Portugese, Omanis, and British. During the 17th and 18th centuries the islands were generally under Iranian suzerainty, often ruled indirectly through Hormuz or Bushire. Bahrainis generally trace their throwing off Iranian rule to 1783. In the 19th century the islands, already ruled by the Al Khalifa who are still the ruling family, came under British protection.

Bahrain has a Persian-speaking merchant minority, but the majority of the population speak Arabic; the majority are, however, Shi'ite, though the ruling family is Sunni. Iranian nationalists sometimes use the Shi'ite majority as a reason to claim that the Bahrainis are really Iranians, despite their Arabic speech.

In 1970, as Bahrain approached independence with the withdrawal of Britain from east of Suez by 1971, the late Shah of Iran asserted a claim to Bahrain and to other islands in the Gulf, including Abu Musa and the Tunbs, also claimed by Sharja (Abu Musa) and Ras al-Khaima (the Tunbs), two of the later constituents of the UAE. In complex negotiations Iran cut a deal with the British over Abu Musa and the Tunbs and promised it would "not pursue" its claims to Bahrain. In a referendum, Bahrain chose independence and has asserted its Arab identity through membership in pan-Arab organiztions.

After 1971 the Shah dropped his "pursuit" of the claim, but since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has alternated between expressing a claim and recognizing Bahrain's sovereignty. Ahmadinejad's 2007 visit to Bahrain was seen as a means of burying the hatchet and assuaging hurt feelings from the Kayhan editorial that same year. But the old wound has been reopened with Nateq-Nuri's attributed remarks.

The Foreign Ministry's scramble to defuse the situation -- Iran's current economy cannot afford scuttling the natural gas deal -- suggests that this will prove a momentary diversion rather than lead to a new crisis, but it also shows how sensitive the Arab Gulf states are towards Iranian power at the moment, in the shadow of Iran's nuclear program.

The Gulf is riddled with latent territorial disputes, a handful of which have been resolved in recent years (the Hawar Islands dispute between Qatar and Bahrain by the World Court; the Saudi-Yemeni border by bilateral negotiation) but others still linger, including the aforementioned Abu Musa and the Tunbs, occupied by Iran but claimed by the UAE. Iraq's intermittent claims to all of Kuwait, of course, led to the invasion of 1990 and the war of 1991.

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