FPI Bulletin: Iran’s Proxy War in Bahrain

August 15, 2016

Tensions between Iran and Bahrain are rising. Over the past year, Tehran not only has repeatedly threatened to overthrow the Gulf island state, a key American ally that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, but also continued to support terrorist proxies seeking the Sunni monarchy’s ouster. At the same time, Manama’s repression of the Shiite majority has persisted, exacerbating the country’s sectarian divide and offering Iran a pretext for its ongoing interference. If Washington fails to counter Tehran’s aggression and Manama’s repression, Iranian influence in the Gulf will continue to grow, further destabilizing the region and undermining America’s forward operating position.

Bahrain’s Dangerous Divisions

The kingdom of Bahrain, an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia, constitutes a key flashpoint of the Middle East’s Sunni-Shiite divide. Ruled by the Al Khalifa family since the 18th century, the country has a 70 percent Shiite population, which the Sunni dynasty has long regarded as a possible Iranian fifth column. Bahrain’s Shiite leaders, for their part, reject the allegation.

In 1981, just two years after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, an Iranian proxy group staged an unsuccessful coup attempt against Bahrain’s regime, an episode that continues to fuel Manama’s suspicion of Tehran today. A 2007 editorial in Kayhan, an Iranian newspaper closely tied to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Bahrain "an inseparable part of Iran"; in 2009, an advisor to the supreme leader referred to Bahrain as Iran’s 14th province.

In this context, Manama’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia deeply aggravates Tehran, and has transformed Bahrain into a proxy battleground between the two historic rivals. Riyadh fears that the fall of Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy would incite its own Shiite population, which constitutes a majority of the kingdom’s Eastern Province, and thereby threaten its grip on power. The 16-mile causeway between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which the two regimes completed in 1986, was built to facilitate rapid Saudi intervention if the Al Khalifa regime faces a threat to its survival.

In 2011, precisely such a threat emerged. Bahrain’s anti-government protests, part of the wave of regional uprisings known as the Arab Spring, prompted Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates, to send troops to the country using the causeway. The Sunni Arab alliance succeeded in brutally crushing the protest, and the Bahraini regime subsequently demolished a key symbol of the uprising: the Pearl Roundabout, the 300-foot landmark sculpture in Manama where thousands of demonstrators had gathered.

The presence of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain has deterred the sort of robust military interventions that Iran has spearheaded in countries like Syria and Iraq. Instead, Tehran has taken the long view, exploiting the unrest in Bahrain to sponsor a low-level strategy of asymmetrical warfare aimed at slowly bleeding Manama through terrorist attacks by Shiite Bahraini proxies.

Iran’s Proxy War in Bahrain

Since the 2011 uprising, Iran’s campaign against Manama has gradually intensified. Over the past several years, Iran has sought to pre-position armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) in Bahrain, and to train its Shiite proxies to manufacture them on their own. In December 2013, Manama captured a speedboat carrying Iranian arms and explosives intended for the country’s Shiite militants, an interception one Western diplomat characterized as “the biggest counterterrorism arms haul in two years.”

On July 25, 2015, just over a week after the finalization of the landmark nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers, Bahrain announced that it had foiled an Iran-backed arms smuggling campaign. On September 30, 2015, Manama discovered a bomb-making factory linked to Iran. The next day, the Al Khalifa regime withdrew its ambassador from Tehran and gave the Iranian charge d’affaires in Bahrain 72 hours to leave the country. In its 2015 report on international terrorism, the U.S. State Department noted that Tehran “provided weapons, funding, and training to Shia militants in Bahrain,” and that Manama “raided, interdicted, and rounded up numerous Iran-sponsored weapons caches, arms transfers, and militants.”

On January 4, 2016, after Iranian protestors set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response to Riyadh’s execution of a pro-Iran Shiite cleric, Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Iran. Shortly thereafter, Manama signed separate statements by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League condemning Iranian interference in the region. In March 2016, the two organizations, with Bahrain’s support, also released statements calling the Iran-backed Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Tehran, for its part, appeared unmoved. Days later, General Saeed Qasemi, a commander in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the paramilitary Islamic group Ansar Hezbollah, called for Bahrain’s annexation to Iran.

Manama’s Repressive Regime and U.S. Policy

In seeking to counter the Iranian menace, Manama has unwittingly functioned as its own worst enemy. By ruthlessly repressing peaceful Shiite dissidents and preventing the enactment of meaningful democratic reforms, Manama has strengthened Iranian influence in the country, allowing Tehran’s theocratic dictatorship to present itself as a champion of Arab democracy. At times, the Bahraini regime has exaggerated the threat in order to discredit the opposition and deflect attention from its own oppressive policies.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has criticized Manama’s human rights record only intermittently, effectively condoning its misbehavior and inviting open defiance of the United States. In 2014, for instance, the Al Khalifa government expelled a top State Department official from the country for meeting with regime opponents. Nevertheless, in June 2015, despite Manama’s failure to enact meaningful human rights reforms, the Obama administration announced that it would lift restrictions on military aid to Bahrain that it originally imposed in response to the government’s suppression of the 2011 protests.

On June 21, 2016, just a week after Manama outlawed Al Wefaq, the country’s main opposition group, the State Department released a long-overdue report on human rights in Bahrain that minimized the scope of its repression and overstated its reform efforts. Ironically, the report, which elicited an outcry from human rights groups, also came just as Manama revoked the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassim, a leading Shiite opposition cleric.

Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC Quds Force, quickly exploited Manama’s move by threatening the country with a “bloody intifada.” “The toppling of the regime will only be a small part of the repercussions that will also include armed resistance,” he said, adding that Bahrain had crossed “a red line.” On June 30, seven senators sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that urged him to press Manama on human rights, noting that the country’s “political crisis risks spiraling into violence and allowing further exploitation by Tehran.”

Passivity in Washington

These developments require a stronger U.S. response. The U.S. military base in Bahrain constitutes the centerpiece of America’s regional position. Stability in Manama remains pivotal for any broader U.S. effort to combat the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups, protect the free flow of oil in the Persian Gulf, and deter future Iranian belligerence.

Washington must increase pressure on Manama to halt its repression of the Shiite majority, and enact meaningful consequences — such as halting further arms sales — if the regime refuses to comply. At the same time, the administration should impose new sanctions on Iran for its regional aggression. In the absence of such steps, the stability of Bahrain will continue to deteriorate, risking a broader conflagration that directly threatens U.S. national interests.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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