MANAMA (AFP) – Bahrain said on Wednesday it has halted negotiations with Iran over a major gas import deal in a deepening row over comments that touch on the sovereignty of the tiny Gulf kingdom.
The protest action came as regional Arab heavyweights weighed into the dispute with an outpouring of support for the US-allied island nation over the alleged remarks by an Iranian official last week.
“The kingdom of Bahrain has stopped negotiations with Iran concerning importing natural gas,” a senior official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“The decision was taken after the regretful remarks that touch on Bahrain’s sovereignty and do not support the relations between the two countries.”
An Iranian official allegedly said last week that Sunni-ruled Bahrain, which has a Shiite majority, used to be Iran’s 14th governorate and once had a representative in its parliament.
There has been no reaction from Shiite-dominated Iran over the row.
Ties between the two Gulf neighbours have been strained in the past, most notably in July 2007 when an Iranian newspaper article claimed Bahrain belonged to Iran. Iran’s foreign minister then flew to Manama to defuse the crisis.
“The kingdom of Bahrain protests at the comments made by Iranian officials that tamper with the sovereignty and independence of the Bahraini kingdom,” the state news agency BNA quoted Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa as saying last week over the latest crisis.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak visited Bahrain on Monday and King Abdullah II of Jordan is set to tread a path to Manama on Wednesday.
The official said the visits were to show solidarity with Bahrain, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council and home to the US Fifth Fleet, which is tasked securing the Strait of Hormuz through which much of the world’s oil passes.
Sunni Arab governments, including the six oil-rich GCC members, have repeatedly voice concern over what they perceive as Iran’s growing influence in the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
They also share Western fears over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Bahrain’s parliament condemned the remarks as “irresponsible” and urged Iran “put an end to… all false statements that do not serve to boost relations between the countries, nor the interests of their people or regional stability and security”.
Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia spoke out in support of its neighbour, condemning the “hostile comments” repeating Iran’s claims to Bahraini soil.
“Such irresponsible comments are only an attempt to defy historical and geographic facts, and are a brazen breach of the sovereignty of a member of the GCC and the Arab League,” an unnamed official said in a statement carried by the official SPA news agency.
Former Bahraini labour minister Ali Fakhro, however, said he did not believe the Iranian comments reflected the policies of the Islamic republic’s leadership.
“They are absolutely meaningless. I do not imagine that these comments are based on a political strategy,” Fakhro told AFP. “If they are true, it would be a major political stupidity.”
Bahrain’s Al-Ayam newspaper said the kingdom had recalled from Iran its team overseeing an October deal which would have provided Bahrain with one billion cubic feet (about 28 million cubic metres) of natural gas each year.
“The comments have negatively affected relations at all levels between the two countries, in particular economic ties and oil,” the newspaper quoted unnamed sources as saying.