ATbar The "Great Game"- The Sunni-Shia Fault Line in the Arab Peninsula

The "Great Game"- The Sunni-Shia Fault Line in the Arab Peninsula

10/10/2015 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

In September 2015, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi militants in Yemen foiled an attempt by an Iranian fishing boat to smuggle weapons to the Houthi rebels. In the same month, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry seized 1.5 tons of high-grade explosives after it raided a warehouse in a residential district. Authorities arrested a number of individuals suspected of being responsible for assembling and concealing explosives. The suspects are thought to have “terror” links with Iran and the Iraq-based militant group Hezbollah.

On October 2, 2015, Yemen’s government announced it had severed diplomatic ties with Iran. State news agency Saba reported Yemen "has taken the decision to expel the Iranian ambassador to Yemen, withdraw the Yemeni envoy to Tehran and close down its diplomatic mission in Iran." The report stated that the move was in protest against Tehran’s "continued interference in the internal affairs of Yemen and violation of its national sovereignty."[1]

Bahrain, a member of the Saudi-led coalition, recalled its ambassador from Iran on October 2, 2015, a day after its security forces discovered a large bomb-making factory and arrested a number of suspects linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard.[2]

The latest events are part of the "Great Game", a region wide power struggle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Middle East. This struggle reflects the Sunni-Shia schism across the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of fueling unrest among Shias across the region, including among their 10% Shia minority.  

Saudi Arabia is capable and committed to out-powering the Iranians. Saudis are pursuing this path through an Arab alliance they lead that can defend Arab homelands from rebel Shia militias supported and armed by Iran.[3]

The nuclear agreement with Iran has emboldened Tehran to flex its muscles in the Arab world and beyond. With increased intensity, Iran continues to pursue its policy of exporting revolution to main areas of conflict (Iraq, Syria and Yemen).Via its proxies, Iran is gradually managing to take hold of strategic areas of the Arab world that are mired in ongoing internal crisis and where there is an active Shia population that has long been subject to Sunni authority. Increasingly, the proxy battles between the two regional powers, which are playing out in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, are taking on dangerous religious overtones, inciting hatred and breeding extremism.

The Saudis have already proved successful in forming military coalitions that can push back the Iranians and their proxies.[4]

The first concrete success occurred in Bahrain in 2011 when Saudi Arabia and a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition poured troops into Bahrain to help it defend itself from an Iran-backed insurgency in a country that is 60% Shia.

The second success took place last month when the Saudi-led Arab coalition liberated South Yemen by dislodging the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and army brigades loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and forcing them to retreat to the capital, Sanaa.

The Saudis and their GCC allies, especially the United Arab Emirates, are currently engaged in finishing the job by pushing north with the objective of ridding the entire country of any groups that are affiliated with Iran.

In spite of the setbacks in Bahrain and Yemen, Iran is still committed to supporting its proxies and supplying them with arms.


In September 2015, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen foiled an attempt by an Iranian fishing boat to smuggle weapons to the Houthis.

The coalition forces seized the Iranian ship 150 miles south-east of the Omani city of Salalah. In a television interview on a local channel an hour after the allied forces announced the seizure of the boat; Brig. Gen. Ahmad Al-Assiri, consultant in the office of the Defense Ministry, said that coalition teams had tracked the boat for a while before seizing it.[5]

The ship was carrying 14 Iranians and was led by Captain Bakhsh Jetkal. The weapons and equipment seized from the vessel included: 18 anti-armored Concourse shells, 54 anti-tank BGM17 shells, 15 shell battery kits, four firing guidance systems, five binocular batteries, three launchers and one launchers’ holder.[6]

The ship is registered in the name of an Iranian man called Hogan Mohammed Hout. The ship’s documents indicate that it is valid for fishing and it holds a license from the Iranian authorities. The documents also indicate that the ship was checked by the Ports and Customs Organisation in Sistan-Baluchistan province and was granted a license to sail in fishing area.[7]

This is not the first incident of its kind:

On October 26, 2009, Yemen announced that it seized an Iranian ship named Mahan-1, loaded with mostly anti-tank weaponry. The shipment was to be delivered to the Houthi Shia rebels. The ship had set sail from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Its crew, including five Iranians and an Indian national, were taken for interrogation in Sana’a. [8]

On January 23, 2013, Yemen interdicted an Iranian ship, the Jihan-1, which was carrying weapons for the Houthi rebels. The weapons on the ship included: 122-mm rockets, 20 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), 100 bombs and RPG launchers, Iranian- and Russian-made night-vision binoculars, silencers for automatic weapons, large quantities of high-quality RDX plastic explosives, electronic equipment for the activation or production of IEDs, monitoring equipment, and other weaponry. [9]

In January 2015, it was announced that Somali authorities stopped an Iranian ship carrying arms, ammunition and armored vehicles at a port in Somalia. The ship named Shakir was heading toward Yemen.[10]

In May 2015, an Iranian ship challenged the blockade and eventually agreed to offload its cargo under international supervision.[11]

In August 2015, the US Navy and Yemeni coast guard detained a vessel as it sailed from Iran into Yemeni territorial waters. The boat was loaded with rockets, plastic explosives, arms and ammunition.[12]


The 2011 Bahraini uprising had three distinctive phases. The first phase was the initial unrest from February 14 to 16, 2011. These protests were met by a government crackdown that lasted two days on the February 17 to 18, 2011.

The uprising then entered its second phase in which there were a series of meetings and negotiations between the ruling regime and the Shia opposition parties. The ruling regime even made some concessions by releasing at least 100 prisoners, including 23 Shia activists on trial since last year for plotting against the state. During this period thousands of Bahrainis poured into Pearl Square and demanded the entire removal of the Khalifa regime.

The uprising moved into its final phase when the second series of government crackdowns started on March 4, 2011. On March 10, the Bahraini parliament passed legislation ruling the assemblies as illegal. This was soon followed by the influx of 1,000 Saudi and GCC troops into Bahraini soil and a state of emergency being declared on March 15. The Bahraini protesters were expelled by force from the Pearl monument the next day. On March 18, the monument was destroyed signifying the end to the 2011 uprisings. February 14 As protests ripple across the Arab world following revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, unrest breaks out in Bahrain where a Sunni Muslim minority rules over a Shiite majority population. Protests focus on Pearl Square in Manama, which security forces attack on February 17. Demonstrations also take place in several majority-Shiite villages.

March 14 Saudi Arabia sends troops to help quash the protests.

The Bahraini government has often accused Iran of meddling in its internal affairs and trying to lure its Shia population towards Tehran’s ideals. Bahrain officials also believe Bahraini insurgents are being trained in Iraq by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.[13] 

Since June 2015, the number and sophistication of terrorist-related incidents in Bahrain have increased markedly. Clear examples that Iran’s fingerprints are all over the rise in tactical capabilities and attacks, as well as the increasingly advanced weapons systems in the hands of Bahraini Shia Islamist militant’s possession.

On July 15, 2015, Bahrain's security forces sized a ship with arms smuggled from Iran. The ship had sailed out to international waters where it was met by a boat from Iran. Weapons were then passed to the Bahraini boat. The cargo included: Kalashnikov type rifles with their serial numbers sanded off, more than 50 Iranian-made hand grenades, EFPs, Claymore type IEDs, hundreds of pounds of C4 plastic explosive, detonators, and a belt-fed machine gun.[14]  

On September 10, 2015, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Khalifa urged Iran to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries and said the Islamic Republic should stop what he described as “dualism” between its language and actions. He also called on Iran to revise its foreign policy.[15]

In August 2015, the Bahraini Interior Ministry arrested five individuals suspected of conducting a bomb attack in Bahrain. It said they were connected, funded and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and a militant group “Hezbollah Brigades” in Iraq.[16]

In October 2015, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said it has seized 1.5 tons of high-grade explosives after it raided a warehouse in a residential district.

A statement by the ministry said they have uncovered “a sophisticated bomb-manufacturing facility that contained in excess of 1.5 tons of high-grade explosives, including C4-RDX, TNT, and other powerful chemical explosives in a counter-terrorism operation at a warehouse in the Nuwaidrat residential district.” [17]

Authorities report they have arrested a number of individuals suspected of being responsible for assembling and concealing explosives and having “terror” links with Iran and the Iraq-based militant group Hezbollah.[18]

Chief of Police Major-General Tariq Al Hasan said: “This significant discovery marks yet another disturbing incident in which relentless Iranian actions are attempting to undermine security and stability within Bahrain and the wider region,” as quoted by the Bahraini state news agency.[19]


There is nothing new in Iran’s subversive activity in various Middle Eastern countries aimed at exporting the Iranian Islamic revolution. The Arab Spring, collapse of the old regional order and the "nuclear deal" reinforced and accelerated this activity. Iran is now conducting its activities publicly without any fear of negative consequences.

Iran is exploiting the Arab regimes’ weakness and decline of U.S. influence and power projection in the region to aggressively promote its agenda; which centers on strengthening the Shia element in the Arab countries. The main change in Iran’s policy is that its senior officials no longer fear voicing Iran’s real intentions and have become open, blunt, and defiant in doing so. [20]

Iran sees the Yemen conflict as Tehran’s struggle to tip the regional balance of power in its favor, promoting its ideological and sectarian values, and demonstrating its regional supremacy over other Arab states in the Gulf.[21]

Iran views Yemen as a strategic staging ground for subversive activity against Saudi Arabia, and as an important stronghold to control the maritime route that leads from the Persian Gulf through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean sea and onward to Europe.

Fortunately, in the regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Arab Peninsula (Bahrain and Yemen) the Saudis and their allies are stepping in and showing that they have the superior financial, diplomatic and military power to counter the Iranian threat.[22]

The Saudi-led Arab coalition, which comprises all the Gulf States except Oman, Egypt and Jordan; launched the operation "Decisive Storm" on March 26, 2015, against the Iranian backed Houthi rebels.  On April 21, 2015, the coalition announced the end of Operation Decisive Storm and the start of the Operation "Restore Hope", whose goal is the resumption of the political process in Yemen in favour of Saudi Arabia's allies.

The last arms smuggling attempts indicated the intention of the Iranian government to prevent any stability from returning to Bahrain and Yemen and showed the desperate attempts of the Iranians to bolster the Houthi rebels from losing the war.


[1] Staff writer, Yemen severs ties with Iran amid Houthi battles, Al Arabiya News, October 2, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3]  What will US-Saudi summit mean for Iranian policy in the Middle East? Al Monitor, September 6, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mohammed al Sulami and Ghazanfar Ali Khan Coalition seizes Iranian boat with arms for Houthis, Arab News, October 1, 2015.

[6]  Ibid.

[7] Arab coalition seizes Iranian ship carrying weapons to Houthis, Middle East Monitor, October 1, 2015.

[8] Mahan-1, the Iranian ship seized off the coast of Yemen ,Al-Arabiyya, October 26, 2009.

[9]  Fares Anam, Yemen:“Jihan” defendants in court Sana'a,Yemen Observer, April 29, 2013.

[10] Arab coalition seizes Iranian ship carrying weapons to Houthis, Middle East Monitor, October 1, 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13]  Simeon Kerr , Explosion in Bahrain raises tensions in Gulf,, March 4, 2014.

[14]  Phillip Smyth, After nuke agreement, blocking Iranian aggression in Bahrain, The Hill, September 28, 2015.

[15] Staff writer, Bahrain: Iran explosives enough to destroy capital ,Al Arabiya News, September 10,2015.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Staff writer, Bahraini authorities seize 1.5 tons of explosives after warehouse raid, Al Arabiya News, October 1, 2015.

[18]  Ibid.

[19]  Ibid.

[20] Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall, How Iran Views the Fall of Sana’a, Yemen: "The Fourth Arab Capital in Our Hands" , Institute for Contemporary Affairs, November 3, 2014.

[21] Majid Rafizadeh,Iran’s offer to help in Yemen: What’s the agenda? Al Arabiya, September 19, 2015.

[22] What will US-Saudi summit mean for Iranian policy in the Middle East? Al Monitor, September 6, 2015.