The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries announced Monday that they were deploying military forces to Bahrain under the umbrella of the joint Peninsula Shield Forces. Now this is basically the U.S.-Saudi overt countermove to an Iranian covert destabilization campaign that it has been pursuing in the Persian Gulf region. The question now is how will the Iranians respond?
The reports of the GCC deployment comes just two days after U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates paid a visit to the Bahraini capital. The United States, the Saudis, and the rest of the GCC states have been monitoring very closely the level of Iranian involvement in the Bahraini opposition, understanding very well that the Iranians have a strategic interest in reshaping the political reality of the region in favor of the Shia, thereby destabilizing the balance of power in the region and placing in jeopardy vital U.S. military installations.
Understanding what’s at stake, the GCC countries have made their countermove to Iran’s destabilization campaign and are doing so with apparent U.S. backing. The question now is what do the Iranians do? The Iranians have in place a number of assets in Bahrain to escalate the protests there. But the more stories that come out on Shiites getting killed in the streets by Sunni forces in the security apparatus, the more pressure Iran would be putting on itself to get more overtly involved in the Bahraini crisis. It really isn’t clear that the Iranians are prepared to take such an overt option.
The Iranians much prefer operating in a covert space to shape the political realities on the ground. They did this very effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan, which they saw as a very high-reward and low-risk effort in order to get its strategic objectives met.
In the case of Bahrain, the Iranians face major logistical constraints in trying to project military power to an island that’s nestled between Saudi Arabia and Qatar – two Sunni powers — and an island that is also shielded by the U.S. 5th Fleet. Now the Iranians could choose to stand back but they would do so at the risk of looking ineffectual at a time when Shiites are coming under threat of Sunni forces. On the other hand, the Iranians could stick to their covert plan and use its covert assets in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon or even Saudi Arabia to try to ratchet up crises elsewhere in order to avoid having to get embroiled in a situation it doesn’t want to in Bahrain.
In the case of Iraq, of course the Iranians have a number of covert assets in place up to grab the U.S. attention there but that could also backfire. The United States is in the midst of withdrawal from Iraq and the more the Iranians get involved there, the more justified the United States would theoretically be in delaying its plans for withdrawal, which could completely derail the Iranian plan to consolidate its influence in the heart of the Arab world using its Shiite assets in Iraq.
The Iranian roadmap in the Persian Gulf appears to be off-track as a result of a pretty overt U.S. and Saudi countermove in the region. Now it’s not clear yet what the Iranians’ next steps are going to be, and it’s not clear that the Iranians know that either – but you can bet there is a lot of heavy debate taking place right now in Tehran.