The volatile situation in Bahrain has acquired a larger regional dimension after Iran warned Gulf countries could pay a heavy price for their military intervention — led by Saudi Arabian troops and backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — in Manama.
On Tuesday, a day after troops flashing victory signs from their armoured vehicles crossed the 40-km causeway into Bahrain, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the “presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain's internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue”. He added recourse to violence should be avoided as Bahraini people “have some legitimate demands and they are expressing them peacefully”. Apart from 1,000 troops from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, under the auspices of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has contributed 500 men for policing duties in Bahrain.
Rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for regional influence, including in Bahrain where a Shia majority is clamouring for democratic reforms that are being resisted by a Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy.
If tensions spiral, Bahrain, which is also home to the American Navy's Fifth Fleet, could emerge as a proxy battlefront for international and regional adversaries, analysts say.
On Tuesday, Bahrain state television announced that a three-month state of emergency has been declared to defuse the month-long political unrest.
A statement by Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa said the nation's chief of the armed forces had been authorised to take all measures to quell the month-long protests.
The influx of foreign troops gave capital Manama the appearance of a ghost town on Tuesday, with shops shuttered and shopping malls closed. Sitra, an opposition stronghold, had youth on the streets enforcing checkpoints of their own — signalling a drop in the authority of the state in certain city areas. By afternoon, protesters had gathered in strength at the emblematic Pearl Roundabout, the epicentre of the revolt, ready to march on the Saudi embassy a few kilometres away in protest against the sudden entry of Saudi troops. The Bahrain's General Federation of Workers Trade Union has also announced an open-ended strike to reinforce the uprising.
Earlier the opposition issued a statement, slamming what it called the country's “overt occupation” by foreign troops. “We consider the arrival of any soldier, or military vehicle, into Bahraini territory.... an overt occupation of the kingdom of Bahrain and a conspiracy against the unarmed people of Bahrain,” the statement read.
The entry of foreign forces at Bahrain's invitation followed a spate of protests on Sunday. Thousands blocked Bahrain's financial centre, while at the Pearl Roundabout protesters battled a police attempt to eject them. Police also clashed with youth at the Bahrain University.
Observers say the invitation of foreign troops has become a “game changer” as it has severely undermined the prospects of a dialogue with the regime. Stressing “stability”, Bahrain's Crown Prince said in a recent televised appearance that any “legitimate claims must not be made at the expense of security and stability”. On Tuesday, outside forces did not have a visible street presence, but were reportedly deployed in the Riffa area, home to palaces of the regime.