Quds Force Commander’s Letter to Bahrain Harms Chances of Regional Reconciliation

The article notes that Abdollahian is thought to be close to the hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and that he is unpopular in the Arab world, having made highly critical comments about Saudi Arabia in the midst of the current diplomatic crisis between the two Middle Eastern powers. That crisis reached a critical point in January when Iranian mobs attacked the Saudi embassy and consulate in response to the Saudi execution of a Shiite dissident cleric.

The Saudis responded to the incident by severing ties with the Islamic Republic, and subsequently the two have been engaged in rather fierce competition for shares of the oil market as the Saudis seek to contain Iran’s recovery, which could engender even greater Iranian influence in the region, at a time when the Islamic Republic is already deeply involved with Yemeni rebels and the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, both of which are opposed by Saudi Arabia and most of its Arab allies.

Al Arabiya suggests that the removal of Abdollahian is indicative not only of willingness to pursue reconciliation with the Saudis, but also of greater willingness to engage with other world powers over the Syrian situation. In previous international negotiations, Iran has been blamed for torpedoing would-be solutions to the factional fighting, because the Iranian leadership refuses to consider any alternative to Assad’s continued rule.

But while Al Arabiya implies that this position may be on the verge of softening, such claims may appear dubious in light of other reports that also emerged on Tuesday. Those reports highlight ongoing – and newly emergent – conflicts between Iran and its Arab neighbors, and raise questions about whether Abdollahian’s removal can realistically be viewed as evidence of a shift in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.

Particularly of issue on Tuesday was the fact that Iranian officials had issued multiple statements, ranging from plainly critical to arguably threatening, in response to the news that the Sunni kingdom of Bahrain plans to strip its leading Shiite cleric of his citizenship. Iran’s commentary on the situation is reminiscent of its public commentary on the Saudi execution in January, which was blamed for inciting the riots that led to the burning of the Saudi embassy. However, in the present case, the potential consequences may be greater, as Iran could help to foster tensions between Bahrain’s Sunni leadership and the roughly two-thirds of its population that is Shiite.

Agence France-Presse reports that Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the division of the IRGC responsible for foreign operations, issued his own statement in response to Bahrain’s actions. In it, he stated that the supposed mistreatment of a Shiite cleric would leave the Bahraini people with “no option… but to resort to armed resistance.”

Given the depth of Suleimani’s recent involvement in conflicts like those still raging in Iraq and Syria, as well as the IRGC’s backing and possible incitement of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it would be easy for Bahrain and other Arab powers to regard such commentary as a veiled threat of Iranian intervention. Iran’s theocratic government is the only major Shiite power in the world, and analysts view many of its regional actions as indicative of a desire to position itself as the chief defender of the Shiite sect both at home and abroad.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels aim to make permanent their ouster of Yemen’s Sunni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, thereby establishing another Shiite government in the region. Bahrain is a likely candidate for another effort of this kind, given its Shiite majority population and the fact that Iran has already been accused of being linked to Shiite terrorist plots on the island nation, which is also the home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

IranWire published an article on Tuesday examining the context of Suleimani’s letter to Bahrain, which emerged an hour earlier than the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s official statement regarding the Bahraini plan to rescind the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim. “The sequence of messaging demonstrates the primacy Soleimani execises over the Foreign Ministry in regional issues,” IranWire argued.

The article went on to suggest that there is nervousness among Iran’s hardliners, including the IRGC regarding what is perceived as a softer approach to foreign policy by the administration of President Hassan Rouhani. This apparent internal conflict is reflected in the replacement of Abdollahian as deputy foreign minister, but IranWire stops well short of ascribing the same significance to this that Al Arabiya does.

In fact, IranWire underscores that Foreign Minister Zarif has sought to push back against accusations of weakness by defending his own credentials as a “tough” diplomat and promising to strengthen the “resistance front” by which Iran strives to confront and contradict the interests of the United States and its allies in Middle Eastern affairs. The apparent unwillingness to defend a less confrontational foreign policy suggests either that the regime’s foreign policy is set not by the Rouhani administration but by figures like Qassem Suleimani, or else that Zarif and his colleagues actually agree with the hardliners on most such matters.

Some commentators would even go so far as to say that Zarif and most of the Rouhani administration actually agree with the hardliners on most all matters of Iranian policy, both foreign and domestic. This has always been the position of the resistance coalition organized under the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which will be holding its annual Iran Freedom rally in Paris on July 9, to argue that regime change is the only means by which Iran’s major policies can realistically change.

Iran’s regime has given itself self-proclaimed moral authority to counsel neighboring countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia on the treatment of their own religious populations.

Accordingly, Gulf News reports that Gulf Arab states have expressed strong support for Bahrain in the face of Iran’s threats regarding an Islamic revolution. Saudi Arabia insisted that its island neighbor sought to remove Sheikh Qassim’s citizenship in order to fight terrorism and preserve stability – a claim that is at least as plausible as Iran’s claim that many of its religious minorities and ethnic organizations “undermine national security” or “spread propaganda” or “insult Islamic sanctities” by virtue of their very existence. At the same time, Saudi and other Gulf Arab officials ascribed Suleimani’s threats to the persistence of Iran’s expansionist ambitions, which can be expected to continue interfering in any possible reconciliation between Iran and its neighbors.