STRATFOR analyst Kamran Bokhari explains how Iran is seeking to capitalize on the unrest in the Middle East, a deep concern for Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iraq.
Colin: Like a dark cloud, the shadow of Iran hangs over the future of the Middle East. While many in the media see reform movements pushing for change in the streets of Tehran, STRATFOR believes a more likely scenario will be President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad seeking to expand Iranian influence.
Welcome to Agenda and this week to discuss the prospect I’m joined by Kamran Bokhari.
Kamran, what is the Iranian government doing to take advantage of the turmoil in the Middle East?
Kamran: The Iranian government is very much in a position to take advantage because prior to the unrest we had a situation where Iran was able to lock down Lebanon and Iraq. In Iraq, it was able to engineer a Shiite dominated government and limit the power of the Sunnis there, which are backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. And likewise a pro-Western, pro-Saudi government in Beirut was toppled through a Hezbollah-engineered move and soIran, moving forward, is in a comfortable position.
There are a few hiccups. One has to do with the Green Movement in Iran trying to take advantage of the unrest and create problems for the Iranians. If they can keep that in check, then they have the bandwidth to project power across the Persian Gulf, particularly in places like Bahrain, Kuwait and, in the near future, Saudi Arabia — assuming that the unrest continues to sweep the Arabian Peninsula.
Colin: Let’s talk about Bahrain, where there’s been considerable unrest with the large Shiite majority there.
Kamran: Yes, absolutely, the Shia population of Bahrain is about 70 percent and it is ruled by a Sunni monarchy and the whole sectarian demographics and the call for the rule of law or a constitutional monarchy is working to the advantage of the Iranians and the Iranians have, to varying degrees, influence amongst the various groups that constitute the Shialandscape within Bahrain.
Colin: And then there are Shiites in Iraq, as you’ve mentioned, and in capitalist fleshpots likeDubai.
Kamran: Yes, Dubai not so much because Dubai’s situation is a bit more complicated because Dubai is just one emirate and then you have six others that constitute the United Arab Emirates but definitely in a country like Kuwait where 30 percent the people are Shiite there’s a history of Iranian backing for Shia dissidents and more so in Saudi Arabia and in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia where the Shiites are slowly beginning to emerge to try to take advantage of the regional unrest. There have been some mild small protests especially after the arrest of a Shia cleric in the city of Hofuf in the Eastern province ofSaudi Arabia.
Colin: Let me ask you this. With Europe and the United States seemingly preoccupied withGadhafi, is there a sense of Washington being dormant on the backstage negotiations it was conducting with Tehran?
Kamran: Obviously given the unrest and given the way the United States is having to deal with situations from Libya to Egypt to Jordan to Yemen to the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, clearly that takes up a lot of bandwidth but I don’t think we can characterize it as being dormant, the back channels between United States and Iran. But certainly the U.S.-Iranian dealings over Iraq are not that, if you will, high on the agenda given the other issue thatUnited States is having to deal with. I wouldn’t say they have completely closed down. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in comments yesterday said that Iran is trying to take advantage of the situation in the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Middle East and therefore it shows that Washington is not completely bogged down in Libya or Egypt. In fact, there aresigns that the Americans and the Saudis may be trying to create problems for Iran in Iraqthrough the Sunnis. Today former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi led the largest centrist block called al-Iraqiya, which has widespread support amongst the Sunnis, said that he would no longer be chairing what is called the National Council for Strategic Policies, an institution created to allow Sunnis to have more stake in a post-Baathist Iraq. So that is a sign that perhaps the unrest that’s also taking place in Iraq — there have been protests not demanding regime change but demanding government reform that provides services to people and address their needs — there is an effort over there to try and take advantage of that unrest against the Shiite-dominated government to weaken the Iranian position.
Colin: Now, for a final question, but a hard one to answer. The Saudis fear Iranian hegemony in the region. Is there a chance of their worst fears being realized?
Kamran: I think we’re looking at a really slow and gradual process. The Iranians are in no rush. They want to be able to lock down Iraq and make sure that’s secure before they make any aggressive moves across the Persian Gulf and onto the Arabian Peninsula.
But then again, you can’t time these things and opportunities present themselves and the Iranians will likely want to take advantage of them. So for example in Bahrain, everything — the entire Iranian strategy for the Arabian Peninsula — hinges on what happens in Bahrain.There are negotiations under way between the Shiite-dominated opposition and the Sunni royal family, in which if there is to be a compromise, if there is to be a negotiated settlement, then the royal family, the al-Khalifas, will have to shed some powers, which means that the Shia are likely to be empowered. Again, to what degree is unclear. But if that happens, that energizes Shia in Kuwait where there is already a tug-of-war between the parliament and the royal family, the al-Sabahs. And then, of course, Saudi Arabia is next. So it’s not like there’s going to be some sort of a domino effect or a snowball effect. I think this is going to be a slow-moving process. It took Iran many years to be able to get the Shia of Iraq to where they are right now and I suspect they are looking at a very long process on the Arabian Peninsula as well.Colin: Kamran, thanks very much. Kamran Bokhari ending this week’s Agenda. Thanks for being with us, and until the next time, goodbye.