What’s happening in Bahrain (I mean, the 14th province of Iran)?

A minor diplomatic crisis has been unfolding over the last few days between Bahrain and Iran, after the speaker of Iran’s Parliament Ali Akber Nateq Nouri was quoted complaining that under the Shah "Bahrain was our 14th province and had a representative at the parliament." Bahrain has responded by halting negotiations on a prospective gas ...

A minor diplomatic crisis has been unfolding over the last few days between Bahrain and Iran, after the speaker of Iran's Parliament Ali Akber Nateq Nouri was quoted complaining that under the Shah "Bahrain was our 14th province and had a representative at the parliament." Bahrain has responded by halting negotiations on a prospective gas deal, while the UAE and the Saudis have rallied publicly to its side and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan have each visited to demonstrate solidarity.  This isn't much of a crisis, but it is a sign that surging Arab reconciliation efforts may increase tensions with Iran (at least in the short run). 

The comments no doubt hit hard in Bahrain itself because of the sensitivity surrounding Sunni-Shia relations in the Shia-majority but Sunni-ruled Kingdom. But there doesn't seem to be any particular Iranian interest in inflaming the crisis right now, and the Iranians have tried to defuse the crisis, clarifying on Arabic-language TV that they have no territorial ambitions in Shia-majority Bahrain. 

The Arabs seem to prefer to ratchet the issue up, though. The visits by Mubarak and Abdullah, comments by the Saudis, and above the fold sensational coverage in much of the Arab media all seem intended to exacerbate the crisis. This is probably part of the Arab reconciliation efforts -- using the Iranian "threat" to reinforce the attempt to form a common Arab position on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks.  A common front against Iran has been one of the key themes in the reconciliation drive from the start, so shouldn't come as a surprise.  One intriguing sign: Iraqi Vice President Adel Abd al-Mehdi of ISCI called for strengthening Iraq's ties with the Gulf, especially Bahrain, which could be read as taking the Arab side against Iran... not usually ISCI's strong suit.  

A minor diplomatic crisis has been unfolding over the last few days between Bahrain and Iran, after the speaker of Iran’s Parliament Ali Akber Nateq Nouri was quoted complaining that under the Shah "Bahrain was our 14th province and had a representative at the parliament." Bahrain has responded by halting negotiations on a prospective gas deal, while the UAE and the Saudis have rallied publicly to its side and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan have each visited to demonstrate solidarity.  This isn’t much of a crisis, but it is a sign that surging Arab reconciliation efforts may increase tensions with Iran (at least in the short run). 

The comments no doubt hit hard in Bahrain itself because of the sensitivity surrounding Sunni-Shia relations in the Shia-majority but Sunni-ruled Kingdom. But there doesn’t seem to be any particular Iranian interest in inflaming the crisis right now, and the Iranians have tried to defuse the crisis, clarifying on Arabic-language TV that they have no territorial ambitions in Shia-majority Bahrain. 

The Arabs seem to prefer to ratchet the issue up, though. The visits by Mubarak and Abdullah, comments by the Saudis, and above the fold sensational coverage in much of the Arab media all seem intended to exacerbate the crisis. This is probably part of the Arab reconciliation efforts — using the Iranian "threat" to reinforce the attempt to form a common Arab position on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks.  A common front against Iran has been one of the key themes in the reconciliation drive from the start, so shouldn’t come as a surprise.  One intriguing sign: Iraqi Vice President Adel Abd al-Mehdi of ISCI called for strengthening Iraq’s ties with the Gulf, especially Bahrain, which could be read as taking the Arab side against Iran… not usually ISCI’s strong suit.  

Meanwhile, the Palestinian reconciliation talks in Cairo slated for February 22 have been postponedMahmoud Abbas is in Qatar,  expectations are rising that Marwan Barghouti will soon be released and will engineer both a reconciliation with Hamas and reform of Fatah, and there’s been a report on al-Manar (which I haven’t been able to confirm elsewhere) that there will be a mini-summit soon in Riyadh including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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