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Saudi Arabia-Bahrain union plan set to inflame tensions with Iran?

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Bahraini demonstrators hold a portrait of Shiite spiritual figure Ayatollah Issa Qassem and a placard with a map of Bahrain, during a rally in the western suburb of Manama on May 18 to protest against a proposal to unite the Sunni-ruled kingdom with neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia's plan to forge a closer military and political union with other Persian Gulf countries risks inflaming tensions with Iran, experts warn.

Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom which is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, is intent on strengthening its ties to its powerful neighbor.


The Saudi spear-headed plan envisions a unified military and foreign policy across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which also includes the Sunni monarchies Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The proposal is seen as a bulwark against the growing influence of Shiite Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.

However, the United Arab Emirates has raised questions about whether closer cooperation would give too much power to Saudi Arabia and GCC leaders last month temporarily put the plan on hold. Negotiations are believed to be continuing behind the scenes.

Bahrain, which has been in turmoil since pro-democracy protests erupted last year, remains convinced for the need for some form of a union.  

"We are progressing from the (Gulf Cooperation Council) to a Gulf union," Sheikh Fahad Al-Khalifa, media counsellor to the Bahraini Embassy in London, told msnbc.com.

Last week, Bahrain's prime minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa reiterated the call for military, economic and political unity while welcoming a Kuwaiti delegation to the capital Manama.

Iran dropped long-standing claims to Bahrain in 1970 after a United Nations poll that showed a majority of the population wanted to be independent. 

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"There is something very dangerous going on here because Iran gave up its claim on Bahrain because the Bahraini people wanted an independent state," said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at London-based think tank Chatham House.  "If that is unilaterally abrogated and Bahrain is absorbed into Saudi Arabia then you can see that it would give Iran some political grounds that that deal is over."

Kinninmont added that there would be no legal grounds for Iran's claim to Bahrain.

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Bahraini activists, who complain of systematic discrimination against the Shiite majority, call the move a blatant power grab by Sunni Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia sent around 1,500 Gulf troops into its tiny neighbor to quell protests during which dozens died and hundreds were detained, tortured and received unfair trials, according to human rights organizations such as Amnesty International

"The only people completely desperate for it in the Gulf are the (Bahraini royal family)," prominent opposition activist and economist Ala’a Shehabi, 31, told msnbc.com. "We know that the Bahraini ruling family are already puppets –- now they will be confirmed as puppets." 

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While Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa has pledged to implement the recommendations of a report the government commissioned in the wake of last year’s violence, many in the opposition complain that there very little has been done to address their concerns.  The government has also rejected calls for an elected government.

'Bahrain is not for sale'
Shehabi isn't alone in dismissing the proposed union with Saudi Arabia.  Tens of thousands of demonstrators chanting "Bahrain is not for sale" jammed a major highway on May 18 to protest the plans.

The turnout -- The Associated Press reported that crowds stretched for more than three miles -- underscored the backlash.

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While Bahraini officials contend that Iran is directing the protest movement, it has not offered evidence of these claims.  The government-commissioned report also did not find evidence of such control. 

Whatever its involvement in Bahrain protests, Iran has ratcheted up its rhetoric.

Sanctions have taken a toll on the Iranian economy. The government is reluctant to admit it. Inflation is high. The number of young unemployed is a growing concern. NBC's Ali Arouzi reports. 

On May 18, during a government-backed march in Tehran, cleric Kazem Sedighi called the Saudi-Bahraini pact an "ominous conspiracy" aimed at the "annexation" of Bahrain by Saudi Arabia.

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Further inflaming tensions, a member of Iran’s parliament, Hussein Ali Shahriari, referred to Bahrain as Iran’s "14th province".

The war of words between Iran and the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia leave opposition activists such as Shehabi feeling trapped.

"We really feel here that we have been a battleground for regional proxy Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and we've lost our legitimate cause because of those colliding interests," she said.

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Others with no ties to the opposition movement have also have misgivings about a closer union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

"Even if it were not the case, a union would be perceived by many as an annexation," said longtime Bahrain watcher Douglas Hansen-Luke, a former CEO of Robeco Middle East and managing partner of HLD Partners, a firm advising institutions on investment in sustainable development. "Bahrain has two choices – one choice is to continue its path towards moderate reform.  The other is to retreat into a policy of no change – something which would likely force the opposition into more extreme measures."

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