DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain has summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires to protest against what it called a “gross violation of its sovereignty” in a row after Tehran criticised efforts by Gulf Arab states to forge closer political and military union.
Sunni Muslim Arab heads of state met in Riyadh on Monday to discuss a call by Saudi King Abdullah to unite the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to counter Shi’ite Muslim Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East and neutralise any threat of revolts by Shi’ite communities in their countries.
They failed to agree on further integration but talks on the matter are to resume later this year.
In the run-up to the Riyadh meeting, speculation was rife that an initial union would be announced between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where anti-government protests led by majority Shi’ites have gripped the island state since last year.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Bahrain would be better off heeding the calls of its people instead of seeking a union with other Gulf Arab monarchies, all of which are allied with Iran’s arch-adversary the United States.
Responding to an Iranian MP’s comments reiterating Iranian territorial claims to Bahrain, the official IRNA news agency on Monday quoted Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani as saying: “If Bahrain is supposed to be integrated into another country, it must be Iran and not Saudi Arabia.”
Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry condemned both comments, saying diplomats presented a protest memorandum to the Iranian charge d’affaires in Manama.
“These statements represent a flagrant interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom, and gross violation of its sovereignty and independence, (and they) constitute completely unacceptable conduct,” the ministry said in a statement carried by Bahrain’s official BNA news agency late on Tuesday.
Disregarding Bahrain’s remonstrations, Iran’s state Islamic Propagation Coordination Council urged Iranians to hold rallies after prayers on Friday to protest at the union plan.
Fars news agency quoted the council as condemning what it called a “dangerous plot” backed by the United States to prevent uprisings from spreading to other Gulf countries and snuff out the Shi’ite revolt in Bahrain.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the solution to Bahrain’s crisis was to fulfil the legitimate demands of its people, according to IRNA.
He warned that any “foreign intervention or non-normative plans ... will only deepen the wounds in Bahrain”.
Iran, the main Shi’ite Muslim power, earlier riled Bahrain by saying that the Gulf island, ruled by the Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa family, had historically been part of its territory.
Saudi Arabia, fearing that pro-reform unrest in Bahrain could spread to its own Shi’ite community in its oil-producing Eastern Province, last year sent troops to help Bahrain’s government crush the protests.
The Gulf Arab state accuses Iran of fomenting the Shi’ite unrest, something the Islamic Republic denies.
After the meeting on Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said talks on a possible union of the six GCC members had been postponed to a further summit later this year.
The union proposal calls for economic, political and military coordination and a new decision-making body based in Riyadh, replacing the current GCC Secretariat.
But obstacles exist because some Gulf leaders fear Saudi domination and have long jealously guarded their turf.
A media adviser to Bahrain’s King Hamad was quoted as saying a new meeting to ratify the union would convene in Riyadh before a scheduled Gulf summit in Manama in December.
“The GCC Union is so close and will materialize soon”, BNA quoted Nabeel Al-Hamer as saying on his Twitter account.
He said that Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have already given their full backing for a GCC union, while Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had expressed reservations about certain points. Oman was totally “reserved in its stance”, it added.
After the summit, Prince Saud also urged Iran “not to interfere” if an agreement was reached for a union.
Most Gulf Arab ruling families are Sunni Muslim.
Tension between Iran and Gulf Arab states has also run high over Iran’s nuclear energy programme, which Gulf rulers fear will yield Tehran a nuclear weapon and increase its prestige among ordinary Arabs and its clout in the oil-exporting region.
Gulf Arab states are already tied militarily, politically and economically in the Gulf Cooperation Council, formed in 1981 by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to counter Iraqi and Iranian influence.
Additional reporting by Isabel Coles; Writing Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Heinrich