ISSN 2330-717X

Bahrain-Iran Foreign Relations: A Brief Case Study – Analysis

By

This article explores Iran-Bahrain relations and briefly explains Bahrain’s geography and Iran’s claim to the tiny kingdom and its role in the 1981 failed coup, along with a brief description of pro-Iranian militias in Bahrain. The study discusses the protests during the Arab Spring in Bahrain and approaches the question of Bahrain-Iran foreign relations after the 1979 Iranian revolution, and ends with a few observations and conclusions.

Geography

Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands (only 5 are inhabited) between the Gulf of Bahrain and the Arabian Gulf. Its total land area is 692 square kilometers (270 square miles). It is 48 kilometers (30 miles) long by 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide. The islands are generally level expanses of sand and rock.

Boundaries

Bahrain is 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the east coast of Saudi Arabia and 28 kilometers (17 miles) north of Qatar.  A 27-kilometer (17-mile) causeway built in 1986 connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. In 2001, the International Court of Justice awarded Bahrain the Hawar Islands, which had also been claimed by Qatar, and Zubarah Island was granted to Qatar.

Iran’s Rhetoric And Claim On Bahrain

According to a US embassy report, Bahrain’s Shia community is split into three circles and Bahraini Shias mainly follow one among the three of

              1. Ayotallah Khameini (Iran)

              2. Ayatollah Sistani (Iraq)

              3. Mohamed Fadlallah (Lebanon)

Also, this report indicates that while the most popular Shia cleric in Bahrain is Isa Qassim, these circles are interwoven and there tends to be a wide agreement between the leaders on policy. As such, Iran’s Khameini asserts religious control over Bahrain’s Shia by using Isa Qassim as a proxy supported by the other two clerics who live in Iraq and Lebanon, respectively.

Iran’s attempts at exercising control over Bahrain are based on its historical reinterpretation of how the Persian empire ruled the country, controversy grew because Iran dominated the island from 1602-1783. In 1783 Iran lost its control over Bahrain to Bani Utbah Arabs of Zubarah from the Qatar coast. Iran views Bahrain as an intrinsic part of its republic irrespective of the national ambitions of the country, and from the early 19th century and into the 20th century Iran has absorbed and militarized most of the islands situated adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran justifies its claims to Bahrain in four ways, which are:

  1. Bahrain ruled by the Persian Kingdom for 400 years 
  2. Bahraini rulers acknowledge that it was a province of Iran
  3. When the United Kingdom controlled Bahrain as a British Protectorate, it’s argued that they agreed and acknowledged Bahrain as a province of Iran 
  4. The Islamic Republic of Iran has always believed that Gulf and all that is in it belongs, belonged to the Persian Empire.

In 1822 Iranian officials in Shiraz came to an agreement that recognized Bahrain as the 14th province of Iran’s Fars province. However this agreement was not authorized by the British Officials in India.

More recently, in 2007, the editor of the IRGC mouthpiece Kayhan called Bahrain Iranian territory and said that Bahrain had been separated from Iran illegally by the Shah regime during the British era.

These claims, which Iran puts forth to justify its claims over the sovereignty of Bahrain, are dubious and baseless. Iranian claims do not correspond to International Legal Norms since they have not maintained and reasserted, and as such their claims are outdated and repudiated. Iran ruled Bahrain for a small number of periods and in most cases, Iran never played any role in the ruling of the island.

The Role Of Iran In The Coup Of 1981

Two years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran by overthrowing the Shah regime in Tehran, Iran attempted to flex their muscles and replicate the same thing in Bahrain in 1981. 

On December 13, 1981, the Interior Ministry of Bahrain announced the arrest of 70 individuals from different countries whom they accused of plotting a coup with the goal of installing a government similar to that in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The unknown armed group planned to carry out the coup on the national day of Bahrain. They planned to seize the government offices and take ministers as hostages and simultaneously planned to take control of national radio and television services.

The Bahraini Government accused Iran for its role in the failed coup and also named a group called the IFLB-Islamic front for Liberation of Bahrain {الجبهة الاسلامية لتحرير البحرين} as having received training under Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Shortly after the detentions the Bahraini government expelled Iran’s diplomats from the country

The IFLB leadership has a strong and emotional connection towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. The notable leader of the group Mohammed Ali Al Ikri was arrested after he visited Iran and the founder of the group Hadi al-Modarresi was called a representative of Khomeini in Bahrain. After the crackdown of the Bahraini government on the group, its notable leaders ended in Iran seeking asylum. It is also mentioned that some members of the IFLB participated in the Iran-Iraq war. The Islamic Republic of Iran also helped IFLB to set up media communication networks in Tehran. 

The failed 1981 coup was the first instance where the Bahraini government openly accused Iran of meddling with its internal affairs via proxy. However, the Iranian regime denied and refuted the claim of Bahrain. The crackdown on IFLB by the government of  Bahrain weakened the group and its notable leaders ended up in Iran.

Arab Spring In Bahrain

The social rebellion that erupted in Tunisia in late 2010 had an impact on its neighboring Arab countries. The tiny kingdom of Bahrain ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa regime over the Shiite majority population, who were subjected to oppressive social disparities. This caused anger and frustration against the ruling Sunni monarchy and led to a wide-scale of demonstrations across Bahrain. The protests erupted in February 2011. The Bahraini government reacted violently to the protests, leaving many dead and injured, but the rage within the protestors remained unabated.

One month after the infamous Arab Spring protests on the island the Bahraini government invoked a clause that enhanced the arrival of Saudi and GCC armed forces under the name of the Peninsula Shield Force, the first instance ever that this clause was invoked. More than 1,000 Saudi soldiers and 600 Emirati soldiers entered Bahrain to suppress protests against the Sunni regime. The presence of these troops ensured the survival of the Sunni al-Khalifa regime. 

The  Iranian regime condemned the arrival of GCC forces onto the island. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini called Bahrain’s protests an Islamic awakening, and he compared it to the1979 Iran revolution.

After the protests on June 1, 2011, Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa of Bahrain declared a state of emergency. The king also formed an independent investigation board to enquire into the protests and violence. The group led by former UN war crime lawyer M. Cherif Bassiouni. The investigative board submitted its 500 pages report on October 30, 2011. The report acknowledged the use of force against demonstrators, but didn’t utter any single comment on Iran.

Pro-Iran Militias In Bahrain

The Islamic Republic of Iran has always maintained that it never played a role in supporting or fueling the insurgencies in Bahrain. Nevertheless, most pieces of evidence suggest that Iran is behind the formation of these insurgent groups. It has become evident that these groups are thriving because of the aid and funds they are receiving from Tehran. 

Many small insurgent groups are operating against the Bahraini Sunni al-khalifa regime. However, three insurgent groups have created instability and threat to the Bahraini government and people.

1. Saraya al-Mukhtar 

The Saraya al-Mukhtar brigades were formed in 2011 with Iranian assistance and training by the Iranian IRGC. The group is well known for its guerrilla attacks against government forces and Bahraini civilians. The group’s ultimate goal is to overthrow the Sunni al-Khalifa regime and make Bahrain a province of Iran.

A cyber attack on Bahraini government websites and officials was also waged by the group, resulting in the hacking of the Twitter account of the former Bahraini foreign minister in June 2017. Having launched 200 attacks against Bahrain’s security forces and the peninsular shield forces over the years, the US state department designated Saraya al-Mukhtar as a global terrorist organization on December 15, 2020.

2. Hezbollah Bahrain

The military wing of Hezbollah Bahrain is another Iranian proxy operating in Bahrain to overthrow the Sunni al-Khalifa regime. The group’s primary role is to supervise and support other rebels who are acting against the government of Bahrain.

Hezbollah is aided by the Iranian government, as the group’s leader Nasrallah said in 2016: “We acknowledge that everything we eat and drink, its weapons, and rockets come from Iran”. The Hezbollah Bahrain takes orders and commands from Iran’s IRGC and its commander.

3. Saraya al-Ashtar

Saraya al-Ashtar brigades are well known for their IED attacks against Bahraini security personnel and civilians. The group’s relationship with Iran has been exposed several times recently. In 2016, top leaders Ali and Mohamed Fakhrawi were arrested after they visited Iran. The group took part in the fight against ISIS in 2016. The information was obtained after the arrest of Hussain Ali Dawood, who used to send people for training in Iraq. This group is trained in Iraq by Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

Iran-Bahrain Relations

The Islamic Republic of Iran and Bahrain have had a strained relationship over the years due to the failed coup of 1981 and the 2011 Arab Spring protests, as well as Bahrain’s close relationship with other GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE. The economic interaction between the two countries has remained relatively small. A 2011 report estimated trade between the two Gulf states to total $5 billion annually.  

Bahrain and Iran foreign relations attained a breakthrough when President Ahmedinejad of Iran visited Bahrain and met with King Hamad. As a result of this meeting, both countries agreed to improve their ties and economic activities.

Negotiations to import natural gas supply from Iran to Bahrain had begun in 2008. And Bahrain had also agreed to invest partially in Iran’s South Pars gas field, however, due to the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain, the relationship between the two countries was strained and economic activities were halted.

Iran condemned the intervention of GCC forces in Bahrain during the Arab Spring protests. As a result, Bahrain expelled Iran’s charge d’affaires from the country. and Iran also did the same .The Ambassador of Iran was reinstated by Bahrain after 18 months.

There has been no breakthrough in the relations between Iran and Bahrain since the 2011 Arab Spring protests created security instability in the tiny kingdom. The relationship between the countries further deteriorated in 2015, 2016. 

On September 30, 2015, Bahraini security officials discovered a  bomb-making facility by a Nuwaidarat villager and arrested suspects who have links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It again resulted in diplomatic ties being cut off between the countries.

2016 saw another backstep in the relations when Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr for his alleged role in terrorism. A violent mob ransacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran after protests turned violent in Iran against the execution. Bahrain immediately condemned the violence and called it a barbaric act. The Bahraini Government went further step further by suspending all flights from and to Iran. 

On June 20, 2016, the Bahraini Interior Ministry stripped the citizenship of Bahrain’s leading Shia cleric and leader of the Al-Wefaq party Isa Qassim. The government accused him of promoting sectarianism and violence. The action of the Bahraini government was condemned by Iran. The Supreme Leader of Iran called it blatant foolishness and insanity.

On November 10, 2017, an explosion caused a fire in the main oil pipeline south of Manama, the Bahraini Interior Ministry called it an act of terrorism and accused Iran for its role in the attack. Iran responded by saying these charges were baseless and cheap.

Since the shutdown of the Bahrain embassy in Iran, both countries haven’t held any significant relations, but both are engaged in accusing each other for actions during the years. The Bahraini Foreign Minister while addressing the UN in New York said,  “Iran aspires to impose its hegemony on the region by packaging and exporting its miserable revolution under which the Iranian people suffer from tyranny, oppression, and injustice.”

The already severed ties between the two countries took a wild turn when on September 11, 2020, the US, Israel, and Bahrain agreed to establish full diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain. The announcement angered Iran. 

The Iranian Foreign Ministry furiously reacted and said, “Bahraini rulers will be an accomplice in the crimes committed by the Zionist regime as the constant source of threat to security in the region and the Muslim world and as the root cause of decades of violence, massacre, wars, terror and bloodshed in oppressed Palestine and the region.”

Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry condemned the November 27 assassination of a senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran and urged, “all parties to exercise maximum restraint to avoid new levels of instability in the region that threaten peace.”

In November 2021, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry announced it had arrested individuals planning an attack in Bahrain and announced that it had seized Iranian-made weapons.

Conclusion

Iran’s foreign policy towards Gulf states has been troublesome since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Iran sees Bahrain and its fellow neighbors as servants of the west. Iran’s relationship with Bahrain has deteriorated in the past and present for several reasons which do not look good for both nations.

Bahrain’s fear of Iran goes beyond territorial expansion or terrorist attacks. Bahrain’s stability is mainly related to securing the regime — as the monarchy is Sunni, although, the majority of  Bahrainis are Shiites. Bahrain has picked a new ally in the region, Israel, due to the growing threat and insurgency. 

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iran is at stake since 2016 and especially as a result of the ongoing Yemeni civil war. Nevertheless, recently it has come to light that the officials from both countries are meeting and, it is, expected that both countries will reopen their embassies. If this is to happen, then Bahrain will also be in a better position to reopen its embassy in Tehran since Saudi Arabia is Bahrain’s closest ally in the region.

The politics and diplomacy in the Middle East are always tricky and unpredictable. On December 6, 2021, UAE’s National Security Advisor Tahnoun Bin Zayed al Nahyan, made a surprise visit to Iran to meet his counterpart and President Ibrahim Raisi. This visit could also lead Bahrain to rethink its strategy towards Iran because Bahrain followed the footsteps of the UAE in normalizing the ties with Israel.

Still, this assumption and positive thinking with regard to the relationship of the two countries is too early and premature to adopt as the damage done by Tehran to Bahrain may be viewed by some as irreparable. It is in the hands of Iran and its new administration in Tehran to make the approach while trying to come out of sanctions.

*Mohamed Ukkasha is a graduate in Islamic studies and interested in Iranian domestic politics and foreign policies 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *