In contrast to Saudi Arabia, US pressure for a compromise has cooled relations with the Obama administration. Speakers at the Bahrain conference under the auspices of the University of Bahrain included conservative former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and Dan Burton, a Republican from Indiana who was until January head of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, but no Obama administration officials or spokesmen for the opposition. In fact pro-government newspapers referred to the US president as “Ayatollah” Obama.
To be sure, Bahraini concern about Iranian encouragement of dissent is not without reason. As early as in the first year of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran hosted a miniscule group that called for the liberation of Bahrain. Moreover, Iran’s decades-old occupation of three islands in the Gulf that are claimed by the United Arab Emirates, inspires little confidence in its designs for the region.
Nevertheless, with talks in Kazakhstan in early April between the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program producing little progress, Iranian officials labour under the psychological impact of international isolation and hard-hitting sanctions. The impact is obvious in the regime’s increasing pervasiveness, its fear-inspired penchant for control, a preference among officials for monologue rather than dialogue, and a dread of foreigners reminiscent of the former Soviet Union and North Korea.
Foreign academics invited to the Bandar Abbas conference encountered among senior Iranian officials and scholars a self-righteous bunker mentality and a bazaar merchant's penchant for deception and half-truths. In a break with a culture that prides itself on its diplomatic, artistic and gastronomic sophistication, officials and clerics embarked on diatribes of at times crude propaganda. Iranian speakers played up Iran's role as a regional power, the strategic geography of Shia Muslims in oil and water-rich parts of the Gulf, the discrimination suffered by Shias in countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and the alleged subservience to the United States of wealthy Gulf states who blame Iran for stirrings of unrest within their own borders.
Foreign ministry officials and associated think tank figures used their role as moderators to rudely cut off their foreign guests so that they could embark on a drumroll of lengthy, highly politicized and ideological speeches. The degree of control became further obvious when several foreign participants who ventured into town on a shopping spree were intercepted by security officials allegedly for their own protection.
Foreigners are not the only ones to run afoul of the regime’s suspicions and bunker mentality. Ahmad Shaheed, the United Nations’ monitor for human rights in Iran, warned in a report last month that the crackdown was intended to stymie potential protests linked to the upcoming election. Iran brutally suppressed protests in the wake of its 2009 presidential election. Iranians say that the government in recent weeks has established absolute control of access to the Internet, making impossible circumvention of censorship with specialised software.
With tension building on both shores of the Gulf, the stakes are high for regional governments as well as the international community as they could threaten shipping in the Straits of Hormuz as well as create domestic turmoil in both the Gulf states and Iran. As a young Iranian soccer fan sums up the situation: “Its bubbling at the surface. Who knows if or when something will erupt?”
By James M. Dorsey