Mitchell A. Belfer, an academic based in Prague, certainly wants you to think so. While he is not the first person who has attempted to discredit Bahrain’s protest movement by accusing Iran of instigating it, few have managed to go as far as he has with unsubstantiated claims in a well-known platform like the Wall Street Journal. To begin with, Belfer tries to set Bahrain’s demonstrations apart from others of the Arab Spring:
- Bahrain is not just another falling domino in the Arab Spring. Nor is it experiencing a surge of spontaneous resistance by its people against their rulers. Rather, Bahrain is the victim of a long cycle of intrigue and interference aimed at replacing the moderate and modernizing Khalifa regime with a theocracy under Tehran’s thumb.
That’s right, the wealthy al Khalifa ruling family, backed by the U.S. and GCC countries including Saudi Arabia which sent more than 1,000 troops to quell the protests, is the real victim. Belfer believes the tens of thousands of largely Shia protestors who took to the streets to face bullets, imprisonment and death were driven there by Iranian propaganda. Never mind the fact that they live in a country marked by the destructive effects of colonialism and within a system which reportedly discriminates against them on social and economic levels.
- Corruption, crony capitalism and a lack of transparency add up to uneven development and a vast disparity in wealth. By and large, Bahrain’s Shia are losing out in the country’s economic boom.
What this reflects, to a large extent, is the success of the Bahraini regime’s strategy to deal with challenges to its legitimacy by promoting and reinforcing identity politics within a system of privileges where certain groups and individuals are favoured over others. In a word: discrimination.
Prominent Middle East analyst Juan Cole has also pointed out that regardless of Iran’s hopes for Bahrain (which are real and require fact-based analysis and investigation before they can be properly identified and explained)
- Most Shiite clerics in Bahrain reject the Iranian doctrine that clerics should rule, as a 2008 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks makes clear. Many look to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf in Iraq as an opinion leader. Only a small group is oriented to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
Did Belfer not know this or did he just forget to point it out? In deciding for yourself, consider his following statement, which makes a serious accusation while offering zero evidence:
- This spring, as protesters camped out in Manama’s Pearl Square by night and hurled stones by day, Iran mobilized its public-relations teams, which read scripted newscasts denouncing the Khalifa family. Meanwhile, Tehran’s military drafted intervention plans. Western observers and governments took the bait and shied away from addressing the true origins of the violence, instead urging Bahrain to show restraint.
Where are these alleged Iranian military intervention plans and what exactly did they say? If Belfer has them, he should present them to Bahrain and its allies including the U.S. which stated in 2008 that there is no evidence linking Iran to the country’s protest movement. Earlier this year Defense Secretary Robert Gates was also quoted in the New York Times reiterating this:
- I expressed the view that we had no evidence that suggested that Iran started any of these popular revolutions or demonstrations across the region.
Gates went on to say that the Iranians will try to take advantage of the unrest, another unsubstantiated claim which is far more plausible than Belfer’s points.
The absurdity of Belfer’s curious perspective does not stop there. He even claims that Bahrain has been ostracized by the international community:
- Thirty years of intransigence reveal the extent of Tehran’s determination to turn Bahrain into an Iranian satellite. So Iran’s machinations during this year’s protests should have had the international community rushing to support Bahrain, not ostracize it.
Really? You mean the international community sanctioned Bahrain like it has Iran and U.S. President Obama outright refused to sell the regime arms because of its human rights record? No, but who needs facts when you have Belfer’s assumptions. And can we really expect more from someone who thinks the idea that the Arab revolutions have been led by people fighting against oppression and for democracy is
- only partially correct in some cases and fundamentally erroneous in Bahrain.
It may be that I have given too much attention to an article that at best provides circumstantial evidence for its arguments (for more debunking see here), but considering how the al Khalifa family has been spending a minimum of $40,000 a month for its image to be bettered abroad and has been somewhat successful, I couldn’t just ignore it.
There are also wider implications for the way in which Bahrain’s ruling elite has dealt with the uprising. By refusing to accept that the protests resulted from flawed domestic policies, the real issues can’t be effectively addressed and the unrest will continue. This will lead to more human rights abuses and radicalization among the protestors. By refusing to recognize the protestors’ demands as homegrown and claiming that they have been inspired by an external adversary that has mobilized disloyal citizens, Bahrain’s government will further fan the flames of sectarian divide.
Al Jazeera English was harshly criticized by Qatari ally Bahrain for the documentary below which gives you at least one reason to watch it. “Shouting in the Dark” illustrates the ruthless way in which the protests were handled while demonstrators were mostly ignored by the world and international media. It’s disturbing and thought-provoking and should make anyone who accepts Belfer’s statements think twice.