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The Race for Iran


Photo from Reuters

We are pleased to present this piece from our friend and colleague, Jean-François Seznec, whom we consistently find to be a uniquely insightful analyst of the intersection of politics, economics, and energy in the Middle East.  Jean-François is currently Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, where his scholarship and teaching concentrate on the influence of political and social variables in the Gulf on financial and energy markets.  He has 25 years’ experience in international banking and finance, 10 of which were spent in the Middle East, and is currently Senior Advisor to PFC Energy as well as a founding member and Managing Partner of the Lafayette Group, LLC, a U.S.-based private investment company.  He holds a MIA from Columbia University and a MA and Ph.D. from Yale University. 

by Jean-Francois Seznec, PhD

The momentous events in Bahrain are placing the Saudi government in a difficult position.  On the one hand, the Saudis fear the potential “fall” of Bahrain to Iran, on the other, they know that a muscled intervention and interference could actually create it.  Indeed, as the United States knows from experience, intervention and occupation do not win hearts and minds. 

The most salient fact of Saudi policy at this time is that there is none.  The country suffers from a major power vacuum.  Any decision to invade and occupy Bahrain to put down a “Shi’ite” rebellion would have to come from the King himself after he has obtained consensus from the rest of the leadership of the country.   The King is 87 years old.  He has returned today from a three months absence in the US and Morocco due to illness and has not had the time and the energy to build a national consensus on a response to Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain or Libya.   Prince Sultan, the crown prince, who was handling the Kingdom in the King’s absence, is often reported to be unable to fulfill his role because of age and illness and could not build any kind of response or policy.  In any event, he could not have decided to intervene militarily or otherwise in Bahrain without the approval of the King himself or without full consensus from the leadership.  No other Prince could make such decision.  Not even the powerful Minister of Interior, Prince Nayef.

From five thousand miles away, the solution to the Bahrain crisis appears simple.  The al-Khalifas in Bahrain should accept the fact that their 230 years of feudal management of the island has to come to an end.  The King should accept to become a British-style monarch.  The Bahrainis should be allowed to have a true parliament and ultimately have a Prime Minister issued from a majority coalition of political forces in the island.  Indeed, the Bahrainis, especially the younger ones, feel Bahraini first, not Iranian, Saudi, Sunni or Shi’a.  A normal political contest would bring stability to the island, which would be good for the United States and for Saudi Arabia. 

Unfortunately, this rosy scenario is under severe attack by an important side of the al-Khalifas who do not want to give up their right to control and plunder the island.  They know that their time is coming to a close and have their back to the wall.  They seek to create havoc and polarize the situation—i.e., make the uprising into a Sunni-Shi’i issue.  Their game is to ensure that the United States and the Saudis maintain their support of the corrupt regime as a bastion against “evil Iran”.  Undoubtedly the orders to shoot at the demonstrators came from this camp, to provoke and emphasize the sectarian split in the Island.  It is this  which has also given nationality to the foreign mercenaries in order to change the sectarian balance of the island, arrested and tortured Shi’a leaders, manipulated elections, seized the best pieces of land, demanded percentages in successful businesses, etc.  This faction of the family is headed by the Prime Minister.  For the past 35 years, the Prime Minister has been extremely clever in manipulating all the social groups.  He managed to divide sectarian and social groups to his advantage.  However, at this time, he is getting quite old and may not be able to limit the damage inflicted to the island by his rabidly anti-Shi’a entourage.  The Prime Minister and his group have substantial support among many Salafi Sunni groups, which view him as perhaps corrupt but strong enough to defend the true faith against the Shi’a.

The more liberal side of the family, headed by the Crown Prince, has shown that it is more willing to accommodate a new system of competition for power.  The Crown Prince does not seem to fear any Shi’a take over.  He seems to be only interested in having the island become a modern country ruled by law, not by whim, where every citizen has equal rights.  The Crown Prince has support among the more educated and liberal Sunnis and Shi’a.  Primarily, he has support among the youth, both Sunni and Shi’a.  The youth instigated the present demonstrations and have shown a great deal of disdain for the Shi’a-Sunni divide emphasized by the older generation.  Their motto is no Sunni, no Shi’i, just Bahraini.  The Crown Prince is also the commander in chief of the Army and, as such, has some influence against the more nefarious groups that his uncle commands, the secret police and the police forces, which are manned mainly by foreign mercenaries.

The struggle in Bahrain is between two visions of the Bahraini world.  On the one side, the feudal system, which divides Bahrain into religious sects, with one seeking to maintain and impose its domination of the other.  On the other side, a modern vision, which sees problems as social issues of economic disadvantages—have-nots versus the haves.  At times, the haves and haves-nots divide meets the sectarian divide—but not always and, in fact, less and less as the older generations lose their grip.

The King may be the arbiter between the feudal and the modern factions within his family, but over the years he has increasingly appeared to be a very weak figure unable to stand up to the faction headed by his uncle, the Prime Minister, which seeks to preserve its feudal control over society.

Both sides of the family, however, have one point in common—they view themselves as Bahrainis first, not Sunnis or Tribal.  In that sense, they also have something in common with the Bahraini demonstrators, even though they may not see it.  The feudal faction will claim that the opposition is Shi’a and therefore controlled by Iran.  The modern side will claim that the Salafis are under the thumb of the Saudis.  However, this gives an opening to the Crown Prince to bring the “Bahrainis” on both sides together, against the extremists, be they Shi’a, al-Khalifas, Salafis, etc. 

If we try to put the Saudi equation and the Bahraini one together, it would appear that a Saudi direct intervention is not likely at this time.  The Saudi gerontocracy makes it difficult for the Saudi leadership to make any decision and any consensus will not be easy to achieve.  Many Saudis know well that any muscled intervention would backfire.  Even the most conservative elements in the Kingdom would shy away from being seen as invaders.  Physical Saudi presence in Bahrain would open the Kingdom to major criticism from all its neighbors and from most Muslim countries, thereby losing costing the Saudis the mantle of Islamic leadership which they have woven for generations. 

On the other side of the Saudi causeway, even the most feudal among the al-Khalifas would be wary of a physical Saudi intervention, as it could lead to the rule of the al-Khalifas coming to an end.  The al-Khalifas would still nominally be left in charge by the al-Saud, but in practice they would have to give up their control and access to wealth to their neighbor.  From their point of view, it would be better to have the al-Saud in charge rather than the Iranians, but not much better.   Perhaps, some of the more feudal al-Khalifas do not see the danger of a foreign camel putting its nose into their tent.  After all, they did provide nationality to many Baluchi, Yemeni and Syrian military types, thereby creating a new class of Mamluks.  However, one can assume that the ultimate interest of the al-Khalifas is to remain in charge, and not sell out their inheritance to the al-Saud for a plate of lentil–like security.

Of course, Saudi intervention does not have to be just a military operation.  The Saudis could provide funds and intelligence support, which they probably do already.  They may provide support to the Salafi elements among Bahraini Sunnis in the form of money and organizational help.  The tribes that have dual Bahraini and Saudi citizenship will perhaps move more into Bahrain than they have before and provide muscled civilian support if need be.  They may try to undermine the Crown Prince’s efforts for a national dialogue, by creating incidents between the Salafis and the Shi’a.   These efforts could be very effective in maintaining havoc and instability.  However, many in the Saudi leadership must realize that havoc and instability may stop a Shi’a takeover, but would make the island much more susceptible to Iranian meddling.

Should there be a transition of power in Saudi Arabia to a younger successor, the Saudi leadership may see that the youth movement of Bahrain, Sunni and Shi’a, is actually strongly opposed to Iran.  A Bahrain led by the Crown Prince with a freely elected government representative of the various segments of society would in fact promote Bahraini stability and independence from both Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Ultimately, stability and a royal democracy is more favorable to Saudi interests than the present regime, which stands to create violent reactions and end up, unwittingly, doing Iran’s bidding.



We take billionaire financier George Soros up on the bet he proffered to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria this week that “the Iranian regime will not be there in a year’s time.” In fact, we want to up the ante and wager that not only will the Islamic Republic still be Iran’s government in a year’s time, but that a year from now, the balance of influence and power in the Middle East will be tilted more decisively in Iran’s favor than it ever has been.

Just a decade ago, on the eve of the 9/11 attacks, the United States had cultivated what American policymakers like to call a strong “moderate” camp in the region, encompassing states reasonably well-disposed toward a negotiated peace with Israel and strategic cooperation with Washington: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states, as well as Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. On the other side, the Islamic Republic had an alliance of some standing with Syria, as well as ties to relatively weak militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Other “radical” states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya were even more isolated.

Fast-forward to the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States, in January 2009. As a result of the Iraq war, the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and some fairly astute diplomacy by Iran and its regional allies, the balance of influence and power across the Middle East had shifted significantly against the United States. Scenarios for “weaning” Syria away from Iran were becoming ever more fanciful as relations between Damascus and Tehran became increasingly strategic in quality. Turkey, under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was charting a genuinely independent foreign policy, including strategically consequential partnerships with Iran and Syria. Hamas and Hezbollah, legitimated by electoral successes, had emerged as decisively important political actors in Palestine and Lebanon. It was looking progressively less likely that post-Saddam Iraq would be a meaningful strategic asset for Washington and ever more likely that Baghdad’s most important relationships would be with Iran, Syria, and Turkey. And, increasingly, U.S. allies like Oman and Qatar were aligning themselves with the Islamic Republic and other members of the Middle East’s “resistance bloc” on high-profile issues in the Arab-Israeli arena — as when the Qatari emir flew to Beirut a week after the 2006 Lebanon war to pledge massive reconstruction assistance to Hezbollah strongholds in the south and publicly defended Hezbollah’s retention of its military capabilities.

On Obama’s watch, the regional balance of influence and power has shifted even further away from the United States and toward Iran and its allies. The Islamic Republic has continued to deepen its alliances with Syria and Turkey and expand its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Public opinion polls, for example, continue to show that the key leaders in the Middle East’s resistance bloc — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Lebanon’s Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas’s Khaled Mishaal, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — are all vastly more popular across the region than their counterparts in closely U.S.-aligned and supported regimes in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia.

And, now, the Obama administration stands by helplessly as new openings for Tehran to reset the regional balance in its favor emerge in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and perhaps elsewhere. If these “pro-American” Arab political orders currently being challenged or upended by significant protest movements become at all more representative of their populations, they will no doubt become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States. And, if these “pro-American” regimes are not replaced by salafi-dominated Islamist orders, the Arab governments that emerge from the present turmoil are likely to be at least somewhat receptive to Iran’s message of “resistance” and independence from Israel and the West.

Certainly, any government in Cairo that is even mildly more representative than Hosni Mubarak’s regime will not be willing to keep collaborating with Israel to enforce the siege of Gaza or to continue participating in the CIA’s rendition program to bring Egyptians back to Egypt to be tortured. Likewise, any political order in Bahrain that respected the reality of that country’s Shiite-majority population would be firmly opposed to the use of its territory as a platform for U.S. military action against Iranian interests.

Over the next year, all these developments will shift the regional balance even more against the United States and in favor of Iran. If Jordan — a loyal U.S. client state — were to come into play during this period, that would tilt things even further in Iran’s direction.

Against this, Soros, other American elites, the media, and the Obama administration all assert that the wave of popular unrest that is taking down one U.S. ally in the Middle East after another will now bring down the Islamic Republic — and perhaps the Assad government in Syria, too. This is truly a triumph of wishful thinking over thoughtful analysis.

Many of these same actors, of course, worked themselves up into quite a frenzy after the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election. For months, we were subjected to utterly unsubstantiated claims that the election had been stolen and that the Green Movement would sweep aside the Iranian “regime.” Like Soros today, many pundits who predicted the Islamic Republic’s demise in 2009 or 2010 put various time frames on their predictions — all of which, to the best of our knowledge, have passed without the Iranian system imploding. (But don’t worry about the devastating impact of such egregious malpractice on the careers of those who proved themselves so manifestly incompetent at Iran analysis. In today’s accountability-free America, every one of the Iran “experts” who were so wrong about the Green Movement in 2009 and 2010 is back at it again.)

From literally the day after Iran’s 2009 presidential election, we pointed out that the Green Movement could not succeed in bringing down the Islamic Republic, for two basic reasons: The movement did not represent anything close to a majority of Iranian society, and a majority of Iranians still support the idea of an Islamic Republic. Two additional factors are in play today, which make it even less likely that those who organized and participated in scattered demonstrations in Iran over the past week will be able to catalyze “regime change” there.

First, what is left of the Green Movement represents an even smaller portion of Iranian society than it did during the summer and fall of 2009. The failures of defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to convincingly document their assertions of electoral fraud and the Green Movement’s pivotal role in the West’s progressive demonization of the Islamic Republic since June 2009 have not played well with most Iranians inside Iran. That’s why, for example, former President Mohammad Khatami has quietly distanced himself from what is left of the Green Movement — as has every reformist politician who wants to have a political future in the Islamic Republic. As a result of these highly consequential miscalculations by the opposition’s ostensible leaders, those who want to try again to organize a mass movement against the Islamic Republic have a much smaller pool of troops that they might potentially be able to mobilize. This is not a winning hand, even in an era of Facebook and Twitter.

Second, the effort to restart protests in Iran is taking place at a moment of real strategic opportunity for Tehran in the Middle East. The regional balance is shifting, in potentially decisive ways, in favor of the Islamic Republic and against its American adversary. In this context, for Mousavi and Karroubi to call their supporters into the streets on Feb. 14 — just three days after the Obama administration had started issuing its own exhortations for Iranians to revolt against their government and as Obama and his national security team reeled from the loss of Mubarak, America’s longtime ally in Egypt — was an extraordinary blunder.

The Iranian people are not likely to recognize as their political champions those whom they increasingly perceive as working against the national interest. Two of Ahmadinejad’s most prominent conservative opponents — former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Revolutionary Guard commander and presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai — have publicly and severely criticized Mousavi and Karroubi over their recent actions and statements. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, another Ahmadinejad opponent, told his colleagues last week, “The parliament condemns the Zionists, American, anti-revolutionary, and anti-national action of the misled seditionists,” accusing the two Green Movement leaders of falling into “the orchestrated trap of America.”

U.S. attempts to intervene in the Islamic Republic’s internal politics are typically maladroit and often backfire. But the Obama administration’s performance is setting new standards in this regard. Among other consequences, the administration’s latest initiative to stir up unrest in Iran will put what is left of the reform camp in Iranian politics at an even bigger disadvantage heading into parliamentary elections next year and the Islamic Republic’s next presidential election in 2013, because reformists are now in danger of being associated with an increasingly marginalized and discredited opposition movement that is, effectively, doing America’s bidding.

At a more strategic level, the Obama administration’s post-Ben Ali, post-Mubarak approach to Iran is putting important U.S. interests in serious jeopardy. It is putting at risk, first of all, the possibility of dealing constructively with an increasingly influential Islamic Republic in Iran. More broadly, at precisely the time when the United States needs to figure out how to deal with legitimate, genuinely independent Islamist movements and political orders, which are the most likely replacements for “pro-American” autocracies across the Middle East, the Obama administration’s approach to Iran is taking U.S. policy in exactly the opposition direction.

The United States faces serious challenges in the Middle East. Its strategic position in this vital part of the world is eroding before our eyes. Indulging in fantasies about regime change in Iran will only make the situation worse.

This piece was published first on www.ForeignPolicy.com; we would be grateful if comments on the piece could be posted on www.ForeignPolicy.com site.



Photo from Iran Press Service

We have written recently about an intensifying campaign in Washington to get the Obama Administration to de-list the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization.  We have noted, see here and here, that President Obama’s former National Security Advisor James Jones and President Clinton’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Retired U.S. Army General Hugh Shelton, have joined the roster of former U.S. officials and high ranking military officers supporting the MEK.  Today, it was reported, see here, that former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who once chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has endorsed de-listing the MEK. 

This is a big deal.  Hamilton was co-chair of the 9/11 Commission and is publicly acknowledged by the White House as an informal senior adviser to President Obama, especially on Iran-related issues.  We believe that Hamilton’s involvement increases the chances that the Obama Administration will eventually start supporting the MEK as the cutting edge for a new U.S. regime change strategy towards Iran, dressed up under rubrics like “democracy promotion” and spreading “freedom” across the Middle East.

As we’ve written before, “it is hard to imagine a dumber, more counter-productive change in America’s already deeply dysfunctional Iran policy than to lift the MEK’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization and start supporting it” as part of a doomed to fail regime change strategy. 

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Photo by AFP

Our friend David Frum published an interesting post, “America Can’t Afford to Ignore the Chaos in Bahrain”, see here.  David makes some points with which we agree, as when he writes that “An entire American carrier battle group is based in Bahrain—there is no way the United States can avoid being implicated in the actions of the Bahraini government.”  But we were disturbed by his bottom-line policy recommendation for the United States: 

“Always and ever:  Iran is the big play in the Middle East…Every regional decision has to be measured against the test:  Is this moving us closer to—or further from—a positive change in the Iranian political system?  That test should guide decisions about Bahrain, and about a lot more than Bahrain.” 

One of the reasons we were struck by David’s recommendation—and keep in mind that he is one of the most prominent and thoughtful neoconservatives to be found—is that it already seems to have been taken on board by President Obama and his administration (though they have not explained it anywhere near as clearly as David did).  On that point, David Sanger of The New York Times told National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm on Friday, see here, that President Obama believes the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere “could create an alternative narrative to Al-Qaeda and an alternative narrative to Iran that the United States ought to make use of”.      

It is in this context that we should understand why the Obama Administration, literally seven hours after Omar Soliman announced that Hosni Mubarak would step down as Egypt’s President after all, called the White House press corps back in and, as Sanger put it, “all but urged the protestors” in Iran, such as they were, “to get out and do more”.  The Administration has clearly decided, as America’s strategic position in the Middle East erodes before our eyes, to “push back” against the Islamic Republic, in multiple ways. 

Some of those ways will be more feckless attempts to manipulate Iran’s internal politics—as with the Obama Administration’s exhortations for domestic unrest in Iran.  We were appalled to learn recently that the Administration is considering lifting the MEK’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization. 

On that point, Bill Clinton’s Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, retired U.S. Army General Hugh Shelton, added his voice to those of retired generals James Jones—President Obama’s former national security adviser—and Anthony Zinni, calling for the MEK’s rehabilitation, see here.  Shelton argues explicitly that Iran could exploit the wave of pro-democracy protests in the Middle East, and that, to forestall such a scenario, “Iran’s current regime is currently a government that needs to change”.      

We have told every Obama Administration official and member of Congress with whom we have discussed the matter that it is hard to imagine a dumber, more counter-productive change in America’s already deeply dysfunctional Iran policy than to lift the MEK’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization and start supporting it as the “vanguard” of some mythical expatriate Iranian opposition.  This would make the reliance of the Clinton Administration and the George W. Bush Administration on Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress as the keys to successful “regime change” in Iraq look enlightened by comparison.  But the chances of this happening are, sadly, increasing. 

In its desperation to look like it can still shape events in the Middle East in some meaningful way, the Obama Administration is looking for other ways to press the Islamic Republic.  Just a few days ago, Steve Coll—Pulitzer Prize-winning author and president of the New America Foundation—broke the story in The New Yorker that the Administration has started secret, preliminary talks with the Taliban, see here

From an Iranian perspective, this is simply one more indicator of America’s unique combination of perfidy and incompetence in Afghanistan.  During 2001-2003, the Islamic Republic provided substantial cooperation to the United States in its efforts to unseat the Taiban from power in Kabul and destroy Al-Qa’ida in its Afghan sanctuaries.  Iran cooperated with the United States, in part, on the basis of U.S. representations that Washington wanted an independent and stable Afghanistan which would not be under the sway of the Taliban and its chief external backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. 

But Iranian officials warned that local populations would see a prolonged U.S. military presence in Afghanistan as occupation—a judgment borne out by subsequent events, as greater geographic penetration by U.S. forces since 2006 and the deployment of additional U.S. troops since 2009 have correlated directly with an escalating spiral of violence and instability.  This, in turn, has once again empowered the Saudi- and Pakistani-backed Taliban, which has clearly made a comeback—to a point where Afghan President Hamid Karzai, now seemingly joined by the Obama Administration, judges that the only basis for a political settlement is power sharing with the Taliban. 

As we have experienced directly, this leads Iranian policymakers to question not just America’s intentions in Afghanistan, but also its competence—and with good reason.  If Karzai and the United States move forward on power-sharing with the Taliban, without engaging the major non-Pashtun factions (many of which have close connections to the Islamic Republic), it could, as Coll notes, “ignite a civil war along ethnic lines”.      

And it is becoming apparent that the Obama Administration will back the Bahraini royal family in whatever level of brutality seems necessary to keep Bahrain in the “American camp”.  In other words, the Obama Administration is responding to the wave of popular unrest across the Arab world by intensifying its pursuit of the sorts of policies that have so thoroughly alienated most of the Middle East’s inhabitants from U.S. foreign policy in the first place. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Photo from Reuters

2011 has not gotten off to a good start for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Tunisia may be on the Arab world’s periphery, but Egypt has been at the Middle East’s center of gravity for decades. 

It is clear that Saudi leaders were deeply disturbed by what they interpret as the Obama Administration’s abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally.  And now, the Arab “wave” is breaking much closer to home. 

It looks increasingly like Bahrain will be the next arena for significant political contestation and change in an Arab state.  How long the status quo could hold in Bahrain—with a Shi’a-majority population but a Sunni ruling family and political establishment—has always been a salient question, but now it is really coming to a head. 

We thought that Graham Fuller’s Op Ed in the International Herald Tribune today provided a wealth of important insights about what is going on in Bahrain, what it means for Saudi Arabia, and what it means for the shifting balance of power in the Persian Gulf.  Below are excerpts and it can be read in its entirety, here.

“Where’s the next place to blow in the Arab revolution?  Candidates are many, but there’s one whose geopolitical impact vastly exceeds its diminutive size — the island of Bahrain.

This is a place run by an oppressive and corrupt little regime, long coddled by Washington because the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered there. The future of the base is far from secure if the regime falls.

A few hard facts about the island that should give pause for thought:

First, Bahrain is a Shiite island. You won’t see it described that way, but it is — 70 percent of the population, more than the percentage of Shiites in Iraq. And like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, these Arab Shiites have been systematically discriminated against, repressed, and denied meaningful roles by a Sunni tribal government determined to maintain its solid grip on the country. The emergence of real democracy, as in Iraq, will push the country over into the Shiite column — sending shivers down the spines of other Gulf rulers, and especially in Riyadh…

If you look behind the Western and elite-populated high-rises you’ll encounter the Shiite ghettoes — poor and neglected, with high unemployment, walls smeared with anti-regime graffiti.

Free market?  Sure, except the regime imports politically neutered laborers from passive, apolitical states that need the money: Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and other South Asians who won’t make waves or they’re on the next plane out.

The regime also imports its thugs. The ranks of the police are heavily staffed with expat police who often speak no Arabic, have no attachments to the country and who will beat, jail, torture and shoot Bahraini protestors with impunity.

Like other Shiite populations, clerics figure heavily among the leaders.

But many are liberal and open, reflecting the culturally open character of the island. Most Bahraini Shiites would look to Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq rather than to Iran for religious guidance.

Typically, however, just like most other tyrants across the region, the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain will whip up anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian fears to gain Western backing — and they usually get it.

It’s not just that the majority is Shiite. From a Saudi perspective, the Bahraini Shiites maintain close family and cultural ties with Shiite families across the water in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Shiite minority, probably even more oppressed, is already restive and would be responsive to Shiite political unrest nearby. This is Riyadh’s ultimate nightmare — a further strengthening of Shiite political power in this oil-rich region.

The Sunni minority of Bahrain is in a difficult position. The Sunnis worry about the rise of the Shiite majority that makes up the oppressed class.

But liberal Sunnis are also highly discontent with the al-Khalifa regime and seek political reform. Many work with the Shiite leadership to attain secular reforms, but the regime has repressed them as well and fans fear of Shiites to help keep them in line…

Washington is now faced again with another hard choice — the legacy of shortsighted decisions made over decades: Continue to go with local repressive regimes out of a misguided sense of “American interests”? Hold on to unpopular military bases at all costs — thereby deepening local anger and perhaps giving Iran ultimately a greater voice in events?

Or should it quietly drop support for this repressive regime, allow events to take their course and accept that long-overdue change is coming? How long can we hold on to another ugly status quo? It’s really about how bad the change will get the longer we wait.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett