Iran dispute threatens political talks in Bahrain

Bahrain summoned the Iranian chargé d'affaires, Mahdi Islami, on Monday over claims that Tehran was interfering in Manama's internal affairs.

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A diplomatic dispute with Iran is threatening to overshadow a promise by Bahrain's government to resume discussions with members of the opposition.

Bahrain summoned the Iranian chargé d'affaires, Mahdi Islami, on Monday over claims that Tehran was interfering in Manama's internal affairs.

It came just a day after the opening of a new session of Bahrain's parliament, during which King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said "the door for dialogue" was open.

It is the latest in a series of disputes between Bahrain and Iran over unrest that has rocked the kingdom since Arab Spring- inspired protests last year.

"The latest accusations will do little to build confidence between the government and the opposition," said Kristian Coates- Ulrichsen, who studies Gulf issues at the London School of Economics' department of government. "By playing the 'Iran card', the authorities are attempting to paint the opposition as being disloyal."

At Monday's meeting, Bahrain's foreign ministry under-secretary, Hamad Ahmed Al Amer, told Mr Islami that his country was inciting "sedition and sectarianism in the Bahraini community" through the media and "through ties and contacts with specific groups in the Bahraini community".

Bahrain's government has repeatedly accused Iran of provoking the mostly-Shia protesters, while Iranian media fault the Bahraini authorities for responding to demonstrations with force.

The disagreement was sparked by a meeting between Mr Islami and Isa Qassim, a prominent Bahraini imam who has a wide following among Shiites, but is a controversial figure among the country's Sunnis, many of whom have accused him of stirring unrest.

Mr Qassim's office said he met Mr Islami as a result of sideline talks between Bahraini and Iranian officials at a summit in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, this summer.

"Bahrain asked Iran to contribute in finding a breakthrough to the political crisis in the country," Mr Qassim's office said.

Mr Al Amer denied this, telling Mr Islami that "Bahrain did not request any mediation".

Bahrain only recently reinstalled its ambassador to Iran, having withdrawn its diplomatic presence in March 2011 at the height of the demonstrations.

In opening parliament, King Hamad said Bahrain would "reject the dangerous escalation by that group of people on our streets" and asked members to criminalise "anything that attempts to erode the unity of our nation and the security of our community".

The main Shiite opposition, Al Wefaq, said calls for dialogue showed a "lack of credibility and seriousness".

Iran's deputy foreign minister in charge of Arab and African nations, Hossein Amir Abdolahian, said that the request for Iranian help was forwarded by Manama.

He warned that Bahrain "is responsible for any repercussions if it chooses a security approach to a political one in solving the issue".

* With additional reporting by Agence-France Presse