Bahrain key to Persian Gulf Power Struggle (source: Energy Daily)

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This process has been greatly accelerated by the wave of Arab anger that has swept longtime American allies in the Middle East into political oblivion. More may follow as the unrest keeps spreading.

Bahrain, a group of islands midway down the Gulf off Saudi Arabia's eastern coast, has been convulsed by protests for nearly three weeks and the ruling family, the Khalifas, seems unable to restore order.

The protesters have demanded the fall of the 200-year-old monarchy and greater political and social freedoms.

But the core of the violence that has shaken the gulf financial center is the grievances of its Shiite Muslims. They make up 70 percent of the population and dominate the opposition to the minority Sunni rulers.

The monarch has pardoned hundreds of imprisoned Shiite activists and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, has been engaged in negotiations with the opposition.

But these ended abruptly with the return of Shiite leader Hassan Mushaima from exile in Britain Feb. 26. The government had said it wouldn't arrest him, a move still not explained.

Since his return, Mushaima, one of 25 Shiite politicians accused of plotting to bring down the al-Khalifa monarchy in October, has been pushing the opposition groups to escalate street protests.

It isn't clear whether Tehran is directing the opposition but sabotaging the negotiating process would be in line with Iranian interests.

This has alarmed the ruling elite in Saudi Arabia, a state founded in 1932, making it a few years younger than its 85-year-old king.

The House of Saud views what is happening in the Persian Gulf as a galvanized Iranian thrust aimed at penetrating the Arabian Peninsula.

The Saudi monarchy has declared it will go to Bahrain's aid if the Khalifas' rule is directly threatened.

Mushaima declared in an interview Monday with Lebanon's al-Akhbar newspaper that if the Saudis intervened, Iran had the right to do the same. That suggested Tehran was the driving force behind the Shiite-dominated opposition in Bahrain, over which Iran has long claimed territorial rights.

"With Mushaima's return, Iran now has another tool to assert itself in Bahrain as part of a larger struggle to alter the balance of power in the Persian Gulf in its favor," the global security consultancy Stratfor observed.

The trouble in Bahrain can be expected to swell again, pushing the authorities to deploy security forces back on the streets in strength with extremists out to provoke bloodshed, as happened in February.

Meantime, a major protest rally has been called for March 11 in Saudi Arabia, the first serious hint of unrest in the kingdom since the pro-democracy crisis erupted in Tunisia in early January.

Trouble is simmering in Kuwait, another major oil producer and key U.S. ally.

Troops have shot protesters in the sultanate of Oman on the southern tip of the peninsula and in neighboring, crisis-plagued Yemen, mobs are howling for the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh, president since 1979.

"It's not just about oil," says Middle East analyst Kamran Bokhari. "Each one of those states houses American military installations.

"They are very vital for U.S. military operations, particularly when the United States is in the process of withdrawing its forces from Iraq."

This complicates the confrontation between the United States and Iran by playing on the fears of the Saudis and others that the Americans will either start a war that will engulf them or will leave them in the lurch, with little choice but to make a deal with Tehran.

The U.S. pullout from Iraq, scheduled for completion by year's end, "allows Iran to flex its muscles, and if, in addition, we see unrest destabilizing the Persian Gulf states, that gives Iran further room to maneuver and project power, not just on its side of the Gulf but also across into the Arabian Peninsula."

Thus, Bokhari concluded, "while the world is still focused on Libya, there is a need to shift focus to the Persian Gulf where the stakes are much higher and the situation much more complex."