The incident serves as a reminder about Iran’s influence in the broader Middle East, especially through terrorist networks that include such groups as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels fighting a civil war in Yemen, and other Shiite rebels and militants like those recently found to be operating in Bahrain. As well as being the base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the island nation is home to a majority Shiite population but a Sunni-dominated government. The resulting sectarian conflict has helped to make Bahrain a major battleground as Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia compete for influence.
The Bahraini arrests are sure to be the latest in a series of developments that escalate the competition and conflict between the Iranians and Saudis. In January, that conflict came to a head when Iranian mobs attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad following the execution of a Saudi Shiite cleric, whom Iranian officials portrayed as a victim of sectarian discrimination. The Saudis responded by severing diplomatic relations with Iran, and conflict between the two countries has continued to escalate both in terms of foreign proxy wars and in terms of economic conflict over oil prices and market share.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has made considerable effort to portray Iran’s post-nuclear-deal ascendancy as a danger to the Middle East and global security, especially in light of Iranian influence over terrorist groups operating in Bahrain and various other countries in the region. This anxiety is naturally shared by other parties, and not only by other Sunni Arab states. In fact, mutual opposition to Iran’s growing influence has led to some surprising potential alliances, and has also strained some longstanding partnerships.
In the first place, there have been some indications over the past several months of possible cooperation, perhaps even including arms sales, between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Even if such cooperation does not prove realistic, it is clear that the two countries are tacitly working together toward a common goal of forestalling Iran’s ascendance. Israel made its intentions in this regard clear on Tuesday when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented upon Iran’s role in Syria while speaking to Russia media on a state visit to Moscow.
Netanyahu said that Israel would not allow Hezbollah to open a new front against the Jewish state on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. It has been reported that Iran’s deployment of Hezbollah fighters to the Syrian conflict has allowed the terrorist group to carve out a potentially permanent foothold in the Golan Heights. Missile attacks have already been traded between Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces in the disputed territory.
Netanyahu also added that while Israel has an overall policy of non-intervention in Syria, it is also willing to make exceptions in order to prevent Iran from using the country to launch attacks against Israel or transfer additional weapons to terrorist proxies. “We don‘t know what will come of Syria, but in any arrangement, it cannot be an Iranian base for terrorism and aggression,” Netanyahu explained.
The Times of Israel indicates that Netanyahu’s trip to Russia was partly intended to persuade the Russian government to help in preventing the emergence of new threats to Israel near its border with Syria. This speaks to the ways in which Iran’s ongoing projects of influence and domination in the region are putting strain on its partnership with other countries that have recognizably divided loyalties. Russia has been providing air support to Iranian forces in Syria, but has lately pulled back some of its support as the world community pursues a negotiated solution. This has long been regarded as a possibly outcome because of Russia’s increasingly cooperative relationship with Israel, which limits the lengths to which Moscow will go to support Iranian interests.