Geopolitical Diary: The Gulf States and the Shiite Conundrum
March 10, 2008
Kuwait has experienced an unusual series of Shiite protests. The protests in the usually controlled society were sparked by the arrests of Shiite mourners and government members who organized a rally after the killing of top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah. The Kuwaiti Shia — who comprise roughly 30 percent of the emirate’s population — rarely organize, let alone rally or protest. The recent unrest has served to remind the government of previous Shiite incidents, such as when militants hijacked two airliners in the 1980s.
The incidents have put the Kuwaiti government in a difficult position. It can’t ignore pro-Hezbollah sentiments among some of its Shiite citizens. But it cannot adopt a tough stance against them either without risking inflaming Shia throughout Persian Gulf Arab states. The Kuwaiti Shia themselves probably will not let things spin out of control, but even so, unrest could spread to Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, where 20 percent and 70 percent of the population, respectively, is Shia.
Thus far, Shia in all three Gulf Arab states have not been openly pro-Iranian or Pan-Shia. But simmering Shiite unrest could boil over, given tensions arising over Iraq and Lebanon combined with perceptions of unfairness at home. The Sunni Arab states fervently don’t want this to come to pass, and so far they don’t have a serious problem on their hands. But their fears could prompt action that might produce the very outcome they are trying to avoid.
The present concerns of the Gulf states — which for the most part are all U.S. allies — are dredging up fears from decades past of a potential Shiite fifth column with an Iranian sponsor. Tehran already is causing regional tensions with its support of the Shia in Iraq and of Hezbollah in Lebanon. These tensions could become a conflagration if the Shiite populations in the Sunni states of the Gulf catch fire.
For its part, Iran is delighted at the timing of the pro-Hezbollah sympathies in the Gulf states. Tehran is coming off of an embarrassing week after Washington snubbed the Iranians when they turned up in Iraq for another set of negotiations. The Iranians have since been using excuses such as “scheduling issues” as reasons the Americans didn’t show up. In reality, the United States doesn’t feel it needs to be at the table with Iran at the moment. Instead, Washington is waiting things out with the Iranians, preferring for the moment to make Tehran sweat over a potential showdown between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This means the Iranians need a lever in their negotiations with the United States. Selecting the Gulf Shia is a great option that scares many of Iran’s opponents in the game, from Sunni Arab states to the United States. But Iran may not proceed too far down this path, since if it does not score a knockout punch with its Sunni Arab neighbors, it will have created new implacable foes for itself. And Iran doesn’t need any more of those just now.
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