The normalization of relations between Israel and Bahrain constitutes another significant and painful blow to Iran’s soft belly. However, unlike the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain is of particular historical, religious and political importance to Iran. Bahrain was once under Persian rule (1602-1783) and as Iran’s 14th province sent representatives to the Iranian Majlis (parliament). A Sunni minority rules the Shi’ite majority in Bahrain, and part of the population is Persian in origin. In recent years, especially during the tenure of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but also before, there were calls to restore Bahrain to Iranian rule.
Bahrain, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, is located right in the middle of the Iranian “lion’s jaws.” It hosts the U.S. Navy’s main naval base in the Gulf region, home to the Fifth Fleet, and representatives of the Royal British Navy.
Bahrain effectively serves as a microcosm for the “great processes” and shake-ups in the Middle East that have gradually unraveled the old order, narratives and paradigms (Sykes-Picot, land for peace, pan-Arabism). These are being replaced by a new regional order represented by the U.S. “Peace to Prosperity” vision and economic prosperity.
Since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring”—and even long before it—Iran has acted with perseverance, principally via its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to destabilize the Bahraini Kingdom and bring down its minority Sunni rule. The decision by Bahrain, with the backing of Saudi Arabia, to normalize relations with Israel is expected to lead to an increase in Iranian subversion efforts in the kingdom through local Shi’ite terrorist groups and the Shi’ite opposition parties, with assistance from the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah. Leading Iranian media, such as Kayhan, which reflect the opinions of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, are already inciting Bahrainis to take up arms to protect their rights. Kayhan declares that Bahrain will be the first of the Gulf states to fall, and that “the storm against Israel is rapidly approaching.”
“A shameful move that will result in serious consequences”
As in the case of the establishment of relations between Israel and the UAE, senior Iranian officials in Iran’s Foreign Ministry were quick to condemn the move by Bahrain, defining it as “shameful” and harmful to the Palestinian people.
“This shameful act by Bahrain,” the spokesman continued, “slaughters the Palestinian ideology and the decades-long struggle and suffering of the Palestinian people on the altar of the American election. Undoubtedly, the oppressed and freedom-seeking people of Palestine and the freedom-seeking Muslims of the world will never accept the relations with the usurper and rebellious regime of Israel, and this shameful act will forever remain in the memory of the oppressed nation of Palestine and the freedom-loving nations of the world.”
The spokesman also warned of “an infringement on the security of the region by the Zionist regime” and said that “responsibility for such intervention rests on the shoulders of the Bahraini government.”
Hussein Amir-Abdollahian, an adviser to the chairman of the Majlis, tweeted that “Bahrain will be facing difficult times” as a result of its decision to make peace with Israel. “The Bahraini regime’s compromise w/ #Israel is a great betrayal to the Islamic cause & Palestinians. The imprudent leaders in UAE, #Bahrain must not pave the way for the Zionist schemes. They should learn lessons from history. Tomorrow is late! The U.S. lifeline has worn out for years,” he wrote.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman also said that in trying to drive a wedge between the Bahraini government and the Bahraini people, “the Government of Bahrain made a fundamental mistake by preferring to find refuge in the lap of the occupying regime of Jerusalem instead of gaining legitimacy from its people” and by “sacrificing the ideal of noble Palestine to the internal American elections.”
IRGC: Bahrain’s Shi’ites will not permit normalization with Israel
The IRGC’s foreign relations office issued a bellicose statement on its website calling for rebellion and citizen protests in Bahrain. The IRGC Quds Force, true to its intentions, will enforce the execution of such protests, including violent expressions and attacks by its terrorist proxies.
“The executioner ruler of Bahrain should await harsh revenge of the Mujahideen [Islamic fighters] aiming to liberate Quds [Jerusalem] and the proud Muslim nation of this country,” said the statement. It went on to state that “the shameful measure by [King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa] Al Khalifa and the dependent regime [stooge] ruling Bahrain in establishing relations with the Zionist regime against the wishes and ideals of that country’s Muslim nation is a big idiocy void of any legitimacy, and it will receive suitable responses.”
Elsewhere, the statement said, “The domino effect of normalization of relations with the Zionist regime—which is through the rulers of certain Arab countries and the engineering of the White House and the hated and unwise U.S. president—follows their imposition of humiliation on Muslim nations and looting of their resources and wealth.”
Claiming that the U.S.-Gulf objective is to make the Palestinian territories safe for Israel, the IRGC declared this project will never be fulfilled, and, on the contrary, will give Muslim nations a stronger determination to “eliminate the cancerous tumor, Israel.”
The statement warns “Al Khalifa and other arrogant traitors to the Bahraini regime against opening the gates to the entry and influence of the Zionist regime into the strategic area of the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea.” It goes on to say that those who assist the United States and the “Zionist regime” will be targeted by the “holy rage and burning revenge” of the Islamic nation, and especially “the Shi’ite residents in Bahrain, who raise the banner of Imam Hussein bin Ali [a symbol of Shi’ite martyrdom].”
Press TV, the Iranian propaganda channel in English, and al-Alem TV, which broadcasts to an Arab target audience, echoed the calls against the agreement, especially from protesting citizens of Bahrain. “The agreement is treason” and “Bahrain opposes normalization” were press headlines. Kayhan newspaper’s editorial declared, “It is all too obvious that the pirate regime in occupation of the Persian Gulf island state of Bahrain has signed its own death warrant by establishing ties with the illegal Zionist entity.”
Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition party: A “betrayal of Islam”
Bahrain’s largest Shi’ite opposition party, the Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society (Jam’īyat al-Wifāq al-Waṭanī al-Islāmīyah) or the “Bloc of Believers,” acted in the spirit of its patron, Iran, and called the government’s relationship with the “Zionist enemy” (Israel) a “crime.” The party declared that the deal was illegal and that the rulers of Bahrain had no authority to take such a move, which it called “a betrayal of Islam and Arabism, a deviation from the broader Arab and Islamic consensus and harm to the Palestinian people.”
Saraya Wa’ad Allah (The Promise of God), an Iranian-backed military wing of the Bahraini Shi’ite opposition group, was the first to officially react to the peace deal. “This false normalization is nothing but an update to the enabling of this cancerous tumor in the body of the [Islamic] Ummah, and it is rejected by reason, Sharia law, and the people,” it said in a statement. On Sept. 16, Saraya Wa’ad Allah announced the creation of Saraya Suhada al-Quds (martyrs of Jerusalem) to fight the “the Zionist presence in Bahrain.”
Bahrain, Iran’s 14th province
Iran claims sovereignty over Bahrain and produces historical references to it from time to time. Bahrain was under Persian rule from 1602-1783, following an 80-year Portuguese occupation. In 1799, the House of Khalifa moved to Bahrain from Qatar, and they maintained a protectorate status to the British. After the end of the 1960s, Britain decided to withdraw its forces from the Gulf, and Iran renewed its claims of sovereignty over the island.
However, in a 1970 referendum, the people of Bahrain were required to decide between independence and becoming part of Iran. They chose independence. The Iranian Shah ceased to raise the issue, but after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran put it on the agenda from time to time. In a dispute with the UAE, Iran also claimed sovereignty over three islands (Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb) near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Iranian officials continue to argue that until its independence, Bahrain was the 14th province of Iran and was even represented in Iran’s Majlis. They also sharply criticize the Shah’s “shameful” decision to give it up. For example, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of Kayhan and a close associate of Iran’s leader, stated in July 2007, “The governments of the Gulf states were established as a result of the direct interference of global condescension [western powers] … And were accused by their people of collaborating with the Zionist entity … They know full well that the earthquake that shook Iran [the Islamic Revolution] would bring [sooner or later] the collapse of their illegal regimes.”
He said it was not his personal opinion, but that of the Iranian and Bahraini people.
These statements, which undermined Bahrain’s Arab identity, its independence and sovereignty, although rare, feed the Bahraini concerns about Iran’s continued subversion and repeated attempts to overthrow the monarchy.
For Iran, Bahrain is a critical and charged issue, and over the years it has been trying to incite the Shi’ite majority’s protests against the Sunni rule. The Bahraini decision to move toward normalization with Israel is also linked to internal developments within Bahrain and fears of the kingdom’s ongoing Shi’ite protests. The Shi’ite majority (70 percent) calls from time to time and with varying intensity to challenge the Sunni royal family.
The normalization of relations with Israel is yet another sign of the profound transformation reshaping the political and social landscape of the Middle East and redefining the region’s relations with the United States and Israel, in particular under Iran’s shadow across the Sunni-Shi’ite and Arab-Persian divide.
Iran flipped the Arab Spring into an Islamic awakening
With the outbreak of the Arab Spring 10 years ago, the popular protest swept the Arab world, including Bahrain. Bahrain encapsulates the weaknesses of the Arab world in the face of Iran’s growing projection of military power. At the same time, differences appear within Bahrain’s Shi’ites. They are still divided over the sources of Shi’ite religious authority (embodied by Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei or his rival Ayatollah Sistani), as well as ethnic and religious rivalries—Persians, Arabs, Shi’ites and Sunnis.
In the dramatic course of normalizing relations with Israel, it appears that Bahrain openly chose the American shield against Iran’s looming shadow, showing the disconnect between normalization with Israel and solving the Palestinian problem. Washington is considered the kingdom’s main ally. The U.S. Fifth Fleet Command operates in Gulf waters as a counterweight and a deterrent against Iran.
Bahrain is the arena of a major conflict in the Gulf between two major regional forces. Iran (Shi’ite), which still sees itself as defining, representing and leading the “new regional order” or the “Islamic Spring,” the one that was supposed to rebuild its vision on the ruins of the old American/Western order and the Arab regimes supported by it. Since the Arab Spring, Iran has tried with only partial success to exploit the weakness and fragmentation of the Arab countries (Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon). With these countries primarily busy maintaining their stability and understanding the U.S. position toward them, Iran has been increasing its political and military involvement. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia (Sunni) is involved in a desperate battle (including in its own backyard in Yemen) to preserve something of the old order that is crumbling under its feet.
The confrontation with Iran
During the Arab Spring in 2011, Saudi Arabia dispatched to Bahrain the Peninsula Shield Force to prevent Bahrain from falling into the hands of the Iranian-backed Shi’ite majority. It was sent to the kingdom in the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Defense Agreement to assist Bahrain in protecting its “vital facilities and interests” and, in fact, prevented a coup in Bahrain.
In doing so, Saudi Arabia signaled that it was ready to confront Iran and showed a new face to its historic rival. The fall of Bahrain to the Shi’ites—for which Tehran pushed 10 years ago—would have granted Tehran direct access from the east (Bahrain borders with Saudi Arabia) into the heart of the Sunni world. Later, with the Shi’ite Houthi rebels, Iran managed to gain a foothold on the southern border of Saudi Arabia, in Yemen.
Iran is constantly working on strengthening Shi’ite parties in Bahrain, such as the al-Ashtar Brigades. With the help of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran incites these parties to protest, even violently, against the regime.
As part of the Iranian campaign, Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Ahmed Qassim of Bahrain issued a stern statement opposing the normalization of relations between Bahrain and Israel. Sheikh Isa supports the absolute theocratic rule of Khamenei (Velayat-e faqih) and even relates to him as the venerated Imam Hussein of our times. Iran also tries to weaken Shi’ite parties that support the Quietist Shi’ite model (separation of political and clerical power), which finds expression in the model of power in Iraq and its main representative, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani and even some of the Shi’ite clerics in Lebanon, such as Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, before his death in 2010.
Following Bahrain’s announcement to normalize its relations with Israel, Iran blatantly called on the Shi’ites in the kingdom to come out and demonstrate against the “betrayal,” as reflected in the statement issued by the IRGC and other Iranian spokesmen.
Iran is concerned that Shi’ites in Iraq, in Bahrain and other Gulf countries, Lebanon and even Iran may shift their support to Ali al-Sistani’s brand of Shi’ism. Therefore, Iran tries to strengthen those Shi’ite clerics who venerate Khamenei. Iran also tries to nurture in Bahrain’s Shi’ites, some of whom are of Arab and others of Persian origin, a unique Shi’ite identity and affinity to the Iranian leader. In this context, Iran provides them generous financial assistance, helps Shi’ite organizations, and even provides weapons to some, with the assistance of Hezbollah.
Iran does not suffice with words and works vigorously to destabilize Bahrain, mainly through the recruitment and incitement of its Shi’ites, and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon (and modeled on local Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Yemen). This way, Iran advances its interests and prepares the ground for overthrowing the government in Bahrain using secret intelligence-gathering cells and organizing Shi’ites to protest and acts of subversion.
The Malik al-Ashtar Brigades
In this context, in 2013, the Quds Force of the IRGC were behind the establishment of the Islamic Resistance in Bahrain, along the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Malik al-Ashtar Brigades, also called Saraya al-Ashtar, aims to overthrow the Bahraini monarchy.
The IRGC even provided the al-Ashtar Brigades with explosives, weapons and training, some of which took place in Iraqi camps. The terrorist organization carried out several attacks, including assassinations and car bombings, against Bahraini security forces and security targets, in which police officers and members of the security forces were killed. One of the police officers killed in a terrorist attack carried out by the organization in 2014 was a UAE policeman, stationed in Bahrain as part of the forces sent by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 2011 to suppress an attempted coup.
Since July 2018, the U.S. State Department has included the al-Ashtar organization in its list of terrorist organizations. Following extensive and ongoing counter-terrorism activities by the Bahrain authorities, it was discovered that several of the organization’s operatives had found refuge in Iran. Bahrain’s security forces have arrested some of the organization’s operatives, and some of them have been executed.
Many diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks pointed out to senior U.S. officials that the Bahraini monarchy and other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, were deeply concerned with both the political (“Bahrain is a part of Iran”) and military (nuclear and naval) threats posed by Iran. Bahrain is also concerned about subversion of its government, and the growing Iranian impact in the region, especially in Iraq and the Gulf. It was discussed in the cables that Bahrain and other Gulf states needed to formulate a regional Arab response and creation of the international umbrella to protect from those threats.
Bahrain accuses Iran of aiming to overthrow the regime, the way it attempted to do in the early 1980s, and again in 1994 when it established Hezbollah in Bahrain and even trained its operatives in Syria.
In 1996, Bahrain uncovered on its territory Hezbollah cells, called Hezbollah Bahrain. These cells were inspired by the Lebanese Hezbollah and were established with its assistance. Earlier in 1981, security forces in Bahrain unveiled the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which was trained and financed by Iranian intelligence and acted to stage a coup.
The Iranian method of operation is similar in any country where there is a Shi’ite majority or minority. It recruits the Lebanese Hezbollah, which possesses the knowledge and experience it gained fighting against Israel and in Syria, and trains the operatives in Lebanon and Iran. Iran operates the Quds Force and official Iranian institutions that work to locate, recruit and train local operatives, who will constitute future Hezbollah cells. This way, Hezbollah Al-Hejaz, the Hezbollah movement in Iraq, Hezbollah Bahrain (al-Ashtar Brigades) and others were established.
Bahrain considers Lebanese Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization. In the past year, Bahrain has also taken a series of measures and imposed financial penalties against Iranian individuals and banks suspected of laundering money and transferring it to support terrorism or to circumvent sanctions in the kingdom. In August, Bahrain also set up a committee to fight terrorism and extremism, with an emphasis on stopping funding of these organizations.
Convenient infrastructure for subversive activities
Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Iran finds in Bahrain a convenient infrastructure for political-religious subversion.
Firstly, the proximity to Iran greatly facilitates Iran’s ability to assist Shi’ites in Bahrain. Secondly, the Shi’ite population (the Persian part) has become more attentive to Iran in recent years, in light of its disappointment with Bahraini reforms designed to weaken the Shi’ite opposition through its inclusion in a kind of toothless parliament. The successes of the Shi’ites in Iraq serve as a kind of encouragement to the Shi’ites in Bahrain.
Thirdly, regional and international circumstances contribute to the “increasing hunger” of the Shi’ites: the democratic elections in Iraq, the results of which reflected the Shi’ite majority there, the strong position of Hezbollah in Lebanon after the Second Lebanon War and its political establishment in Lebanon, the successes of the Houthi rebels in Yemen and their steadfast stand against Saudi Arabia, including the capture of the Yemenite capital Sana’a.
Fourthly, Iran continues to exploit the collective weakness of the Sunni Arabs in the absence of a leading power core, for example, the symbols of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and to some extent, Hafez al-Assad in Syria. This way, Iran is trying to use the vacuum to direct changes in Bahrain the way it desires.
Shi’ite social networks in Bahrain and their affiliation with Shi’ite social networks in countries with a majority Shi’ite population played a key role during the attempted coup during the Arab Spring in Bahrain in terms of spreading and inciting protests, as well as coordinating with Shi’ite parties outside Bahrain. Bahraini bloggers (some of whom have been arrested by the authorities), opposition forums and websites have also been active during previous rounds of protests against the regime during 2007 and 2008.
A unique feature of Bahraini virtual space is that it is a part of the broader Shi’ite context and affiliations. In cyberspace, Bahraini Shi’ites find “sympathetic ears,” words of encouragement and practical advice, as well as ideas common to Shi’ites in a broader context.
The Shi’ite protest in Bahrain resonates in Hezbollah’s forums in Lebanon. Images and videos uploaded in Bahrain echo in Hezbollah’s blogs and forums in Iraq and vice versa. This way, inspired by Iran, a kind of “Shi’ite virtual fraternity” is created, which in the end finds expression far beyond the virtual.
Iran’s hopes for a speedy overthrow of the Bahraini monarchy were quickly dashed. Iran had hoped that Bahrain would become another link in the series of what it has defined as “divine events” since the beginning of the 21st century, including Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War and “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza.
During the Arab Spring protest in Bahrain, Khamenei stressed that the Bahraini struggle is similar to the struggle in other Arab countries and should therefore be supported. In a propaganda message issued by Khamenei, he also emphasized that Iran supports Bahrain not because of Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, but the way it has been supporting the Palestinian struggle for the past 32 years. In his message, he said, “We do not differentiate between Gaza, Palestine, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen—tyranny everywhere is doomed to failure.”
In 2011, the Iranians made similar claims to those made today in the face of the establishment of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, according to which the United States has nurtured the monarchies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to maintain its dominance in the region.
Mohammad Ali Jafari, former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, pointed out in April 2011 that the common denominator of all revolutions against the “corrupt rulers in the region” is the loyalty of these rulers to the United States and Israel. He emphasized that “the residents of Bahrain cannot tolerate such humiliation.” The Saudi military intervention in Bahrain was defined by the IRGC commander as a “strategic error” that would bring Bahrain’s end closer.
A strategic shift in the regional power equations
The normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE reflects strategic developments in the region, some resulting from the Arab Spring and some deriving from the Gulf states’ growing concern regarding Iran’s lengthening regional shadow. The Gulf states have decided to rely on the United States (and Israel), in stark contrast to Tehran’s repeated declarations that Gulf security should be in the hands of countries on its shores.
Iran had hoped and still hopes that it will be able to translate the shock waves of the Arab Spring and the continued weakness of the Sunni Arab camp into a Shi’ite-led Islamic awakening, whereby it takes the central place in the leadership of a new Middle East. Against this backdrop, Iran will continue to present itself (with Turkey breathing down its neck) as remaining true to the Palestinian vision of “liberating Palestine from sea to river” and to head the resistance camp, emphasizing the betrayal of the Palestinian people by the Sunni Arabs.
Faced with the stinging normalization decision by Bahrain—a country with a Shi’ite majority—Iran will further emphasize the growing influence of Shi’ites in the region. The Shi’ites, who Iran believes have lived since the dawn of Islam with a constant sense of degradation by the Sunnis, are now inspired by each other and the Shi’ite successes in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Yemen. They aspire to take a historical place of honor that will lead the Islamic world in a new Islamic world order.
For Iran, the Bahrain campaign is not over yet, but has merely entered a dangerous new phase. Iran’s attempts to destabilize Bahrain, via the Shi’ite majority and terrorist organizations recruited from within and aided by the successful model of the Lebanese Hezbollah, all suggest a violent future. Iranian propaganda is already inciting the Shi’ite majority against the normalization. Bahrain has many Iranian-inspired terrorist cells, established during the era of Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Another question is whether Iran, motivated by a genuine fear of a “Zionist presence” in the Gulf, will attempt to carry out a Crimea-style invasion of Bahrain to restore what it believes to belong to Iran, risking a direct confrontation with the United States. It is likely that Iran has discussed such a scenario and has contingency plans to implement it. Iran also sees Bahrain as a springboard to drive its influence into Sunni territory and to encircle Saudi Arabia from Iraq (northeast), Yemen (in the south) and Bahrain (to the east) through Shi’ite-majority countries. In addition, Iran could stir up the oil-rich eastern part of Saudi Arabia, where there is a large Shi’ite minority.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.