An Interview with Dr. Belfer on the Challenges facing Bahrain
By Noora Al-Mutawa
Dr. Mitchell Belfer's recent article, entitled "Demographic warfare", details the demographic divisions within Bahrain's public and private sectors, and offers new insight into the unfolding debate on sectarianism in the country. He indicates in the article that it is part of a larger project exploring Bahrain. I had the opportunity to meet with Belfer to discuss his new book and his understanding of Bahrain and the crisis it faces.
Do you think Iran wants to take over?
Yes. Not to say that another country wouldn't. Iran would become strategically stronger if it succeeded, in the sense that it would gain territories and influence over the western part of the Arabian Gulf.
NM: Mitchell, your previous writings explore Bahrain in its internal and external dimensions. How does the book expand on your previous work?
MB: The book is more than a culmination of my previous articles; it adds a different dimension altogether. The previous articles focus on the external environment from which Bahrain operates- the Arab Gulf- or on some dimensions of internal politics. The book discusses the trials and tribulations facing Bahrain and also offers insights into parts of the country which are usually not appreciated. For example, Bahrain is the first country in the region to use up the bulk of its hydrocarbons. It is entering a post hydrocarbon economic system and will serve as a positive example for similar countries. In the same way, the diversity in Bahrain has been under-recognized, and the book will show the work of various communities not usually identified in public. In this way, the book offers a broader picture to people unfamiliar with Bahrain.
NM: What are some of the challenges facing Bahrain?
MB: Bahrain faces the same challenges as the region, but because it is a small country, they are felt more strongly. Also, it is an archipelago; which makes it very vulnerable as the population is concentrated and there are insufficient natural barriers. There are three specific challenges, as I see it.
The first is external intervention, where one or more foreign parties want to enter the decision making cycle, and force the country to change direction, or even take over. For a long time Iran has been the basis of this challenge.
NM: Do you think Iran wants to take over?
MB: Yes. Not to say that another country wouldn't. Iran would become strategically stronger if it succeeded, in the sense that it would gain territories and influence over the western part of the Arabian Gulf.
NM: The other two challenges…?
MB: The second are the internal challenges, directly related to the external. Iran operates cells in Bahrain, and it could even try to inspire a situation where it could legitimately interfere, like ensuring the Shiites become actually suppressed. This would mirror the Soviet strategy after World War 2, when Soviets intervened in Hungary supposedly to protect the communists which they had created in the first place.
Inciting sectarianism only benefits Iran; it is not in the interest of any community in Bahrain. Therefore, our duty is not to bridge a divide, but to prevent sectarianism from determining how external actors treat Bahrain.
The third set of challenges can be termed "the challenges of friendship". For a parliament [the UK] to invite opposition to speak without including the government- following a policy of appeasement- is totally irresponsible. I doubt it was done on purpose, but Bahrain's friends must realize the profound impact their foreign policy can have on small states.
NM: You make it seem as if domestic policies matter less than the external environment.
MB: On the contrary, if the government was less unified, the situation would be very different. The US and UK are not natural allies for Bahrain; they were selected by the rulers in the 19th century when the rulers could have chosen a different path, allying with the Ottoman Empire for example. No responsible government would allow Iran sovereign control, but they can offer exogenous powers access and basing rights knowing these countries would not threaten sovereignty. There are people who prefer an alliance with Iran, but because this would mean an end to sovereignty, we know these individuals are working against the national interest.
NM: What has been America's role since the start of the crisis?
MB: I find that there are two Americas: The America of knowledge, and that of ideals. The former knows that the crisis is not simply of Bahrain's internal political system, but of external intervention. The America of "ideals"- and I use the term loosely- views the promotion of American ideology as paramount to US hegemony. I am not saying that the goals of the US are wrong, but you cannot force others to emulate your system if your system itself is skewed: consider the curtailment of freedom of speech since 2001. Bahrain is one of those countries being bullied, and Obama shouldn't expect to change a system that is working here.
NM: Do you think Iran's newly elected President will enact changes to Iran's foreign policy, and specifically, in its relationship with Bahrain and the Arab World?
MB: Short answer? Zero, none. Iran's foreign policy is not made by the president; it must be approved by the Ayatollah, the supreme council and the commanders of the Al Qods force. Anyway, Iran has invested too much energy into the current policy, with its cells and involvement in Syria. We will see an escalation, but that is unrelated to the President. If Iran's asymmetric capabilities are proven to work in Syria, it is likely they will implement them elsewhere, and we could be up for years of further asymmetric warfare. Everything was decided in the strategically important AlQaseer, where the AlQods and Hezbollah forces effectively managed to cut off the Syrian [opposition] Army from Aleppo.
NM: Will Bahrain ever be free from foreign interference?
MB: No country is ever free of foreign intervention, whether economically or environmentally. In the case of a complete defeat of Hezbollah in Syria, Iran would be licking its wounds for decades to come. But even if its forces leave Bahrain, there are many other ways it can exert control. For example, Iran's waters run throughout the Gulf countries, and if decides to begin dumping, it can destroy their environment. Anyway, Bahrain is too sought after as a prize, and the asymmetric force is now much more refined than in 2010, in terms of weapons, tactics and strategy. Many think 2011 was a dry run for an even bigger "revolution" in 2015.
NM: And what do you think of a Bahrain-Saudi union or GCC union?
MB: As long as Saudi does not curtail the freedom of religion and the dynamic civil society in Bahrain, then it is strategically important for both of them to join. I suspect the GCC will move in a positive direction to include Jordan, making the organization not only a Gulf actor but also an actor in the Levant and Red Sea. I think a GCC union-like the EU- is likely, but Qatar and the UAE will probably join after the others- Saudi, Kuwait, Bahrain and possibly Jordan by then.
NM: Thank you, Dr. Belfer for shedding light on the international environment from which Bahrain operates, and underscoring why we should analyze the political dynamics of small states differently.
Dr. Mitchell Belfer's new book, entitled Small State, Dangerous Region: A Strategic Assessment of Bahrain is due out at the end of summer.