If you were to ask Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, an adviser to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, what the connection between Bushehr, Fars, Khorasan, Yazd, Qom and Bahrain is, he would respond that they are all provinces of Iran. Ask Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and he will say they are all provinces of Iran, except of course for Bahrain, which is a sovereign country of which he happens to be the king.
Despite assertions that Nuri has no authority to make policy, the recent claim that Bahrain is Iran's 14th province has troubled Manama. Nuri's position as a member of the regime's Expediency Council, which is under the control of the supreme leader - Iran's highest authority - somewhat belies the suggestion that the Tehran regime itself is a disinterested observer in this debate.
Nuri's comments should be taken as a microcosm of the Islamic Republic's conduct in the region, and indeed beyond. Iran's involvement in Arab affairs, namely in Palestine and Lebanon, has landed it some support on the Arab street, but also excited concern from Arab governments. This latest comment is Tehran's way of reminding the Arab world soon after the conflict in Gaza that it can flex its hegemonic muscles closer to home too.
This is not the first time that Bahrain's sovereignty has been questioned by Iran. In 1958, Tehran also declared that the kingdom was Iran's 14th province and that, as such, it was entitled to two seats in its Parliament. The editor in chief of the Iranian daily Kayhan, a publication directly under the supervision of the office of the supreme leader, made the same comments in 2007. As recently as December last year, the Iranian parliamentarian Daryoush Ghanbari also claimed that Bahrain was an integral part of Iran, and he questioned what he called the dubious role of the United Nations in establishing Bahrain's sovereignty.
Under Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran relinquished its claim over Bahrain in exchange for British acceptance of its sovereignty over three strategic islands belonging to the United Arab Emirates. But when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ascended to power in1979, he made clear his intention to export the Islamic Revolution. The obvious targets were Iran's neighboring Arab states. The slogan of exporting the revolution was set in motion immediately, and in 1981 the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain staged a failed coup d'etat in Bahrain.
This is significant, especially in light of the fact that during his campaign, the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stood on a platform of returning Iran to the purity of the early days of revolutionary fervor.
In protest at the remark over its sovereignty, Manama ordered home a delegation in Iran negotiating the import of natural gas to Bahrain. Its decision to do so was intended to show Iran that Bahrain will not take comments regarding its existence as an independent state lightly.
This recent spat has also involved regional powers. Gulf Cooperation Council Secretary General Abdel-Rahman al-Attiyeh asked "How can a country which is a member of the GCC, Arab League and the United Nations be part of another country's territory?" Saudi Arabia has spoken out in support of Bahrain. Jordan's King Abdullah II went to Manama to express solidarity, as did Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak.
These comments have come at a time when the US President Barack Obama, elected on a platform of change, has spoken about extending a hand to Iran providing that it will unclench its fist. Given that Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president and a more liberal cleric who favors dialogue with the United States, has a chance of becoming the new Iranian president, the Arab Gulf states are starting to panic. They fear that a US rapprochement with Iran would mean American concessions to the Iranians, leaving them at the mercy of a non-Arab, Shiite nuclear power with close ties to the new Shiite-dominated government in Iraq.
Iranian officials need to recognize that Bahrain is a sovereign nation and a respected member of the international community. It is uncanny that prior to invading Kuwait, Saddam Hussein used identical language to Iran's today by claiming that Kuwait was the 19th province of Iraq. Saddam took the lack of response from the international community, especially from the US, as an invitation to invade. The memory of a GCC country being annexed by a regional heavyweight is not such a distant one; we are obliged to learn from history in order to prevent its repetition. The international community should therefore condemn Iranian statements unreservedly.
However, action to reprimand Iran must start closer to home. Issuing statements of condemnation or recalling delegations will not be enough to stop the regional bully from taunting its neighbors. A cohesive and bold GCC policy regarding the Islamic Republic must now be established as a priority in order to challenge Iranian comments and actions, thereby enhancing the stability and development of the Gulf region to the benefit of all its component states, large and small alike.
Claudia Schwartz is an associate fellow for the Middle East at the Henry Jackson Society in London. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.