In a recent speech Ayatollah Rouhani, a prominent Iranian religious leader, stated that Iran might resurrect its territorial claims to the island country of Bahrain. This issue was settled almost a decade ago, and Bahrain is now an independent country. Rouhani's remarks have, understandably, generated insecurity in Bahrain and throughout the Arab littoral. Even though the statement has been disavowed by the Khomeini regime, the Arab Gulf states see in it a real threat to stability in the area.
There is a belief among these states that the confusion and instability plaguing Iran could soon be exported to other parts of the Gulf -- under the pretense of spreading Iran's "Islamic revolution." Saudi Arabia sees in this a potential danger for the region and ultimately for the world economy. For Bahrain, however, Iranian saber-rattling threatens the island's very existence. Bahraini leaders view the resurrection of these territorial claims as an invitation to religious and civil conflict between the island's Shi'a Moslems and Sunni Moslems and between Arabs and Iranians, of which the latter constitute about 10 percent of the population.
Three questions arise. Why are Iranian territorial claims to Bahrain being raised at this time? What will be the impact of these statements on the Arab countries of the Gulf? What might the United States do now to avert a military confrontation in the region?
The raising of a territorial claim at this time has been attributed to Rouhani's desire to repudiate agreements concluded under the shah and to his belief that Iran's "Islamic revolution" should spearhead other "democratic" revolutions in neighboring countries, thereby making Ayatollah Khomeini the "policeman" of human rights in the region.
The ayatollah should be reminded, however, that when the Iranian claim to Bahrain was finally liquidated in 1970-1971, it was done as part of an international arrangement involving the United Nations, and the United Kingdom and the United States as well. A plebiscite was held in Bahrain, and the issue was settled. The solution was not merely an imperial decree but an international decision in which the people of Bahrain participated.
The second motive is equally groundless. The Shi'a minority has been involved in government, in business and in many facets of social life in Bahrain. Shi'as have occupied ministerial and other high positions. The al-Khalifa (Sunni) government has been sensitive to the needs of the large Shi'a minority and has not interfered in its religious practices.
The issues of human rights that Rouhani has raised are presumptuous and self-serving. He indicates that if the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain continues to "suppress" the Bahraini people, the "Islamic revolution" will have to come to the aid of the "oppressed." The speed with which the Khomeini regime has anointed itself the guardian of the Gulf is astounding, particularly since the suppression of human rights in Iran itself has become the subject of worldwide comment. Iranian minorities in Arab emirates have been called upon openly to assert themselves and to play an active role in reshaping Sunni-ruled societies according to the Shi'a vision of Islam. Internal turmoil seems to be a part of this call, which will also nicely divert attention from the serious problems of non-Iranian minorities in Iran itself.
Wisely, Arab Gulf governments have taken a low-key approach to both the unrest of Shi'a or Iranian minorities at home and to the saber-rattling of the aayatollah. Iranian threats have brought the states closer together, with Saudi Arabia playing a leading role. If the rumored stationing of Saudi troops in Bahrain is correct, this would mark a new regional role for Saudi Arabia. An Iranian-Saudi confrontation aligned on a Sunni-Shi'a axis becomes possible and potentially dangerous.
Because of its naval presence in Bahrain, the United States has been sensitive to the impact of threats on regional stability. Recent meetings in the Department of Defense are said to have dealt with the immediate impact of a possible clash over the U.S. regional presence, and with the long-term impact on oil shipments.
American militray options are rather limited, but the U.S. government should offer its good offices: Iran would be well advised to renounce territorial claims to any Gulf country and to honor the international agreement that led to Bahrain's independence. Iran should resist the temptation to interfere in the internal affairs of neighboring states.
Arab states should measure their response to any Iranian action and allow regional and international diplomacy to defuse the crisis.
Iran and the Arab Gulf states should encourage a gradual process of reform designed to invite more popular participation in government. The presence of minorities should be dealt with rationally and calmly through the political systems of the individual states.
Finally, if Rouhani's statements regarding Bahrain are indeed an expression of a new mood of xenophobia in Iran, Khomeini should be advised to channel such a mood into a constructive rebuilding of Iranian society based on the Islamic principles of tolerance and justice.