Bahrain and “Iranian-Backed Terrorism”

by Emile Nakhleh

In a recent article, Matthew Levitt and Michael Knights of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) highlighted Iranian support of “terrorism” in Bahrain and suggested a future path for the country “balancing security and human rights.” Although the authors rightly suggest that Bahrain should do more to address human rights problems, their article suffers from three seriously flawed assumptions. They believe that Iran drives and supports the bulk of the opposition to the regime, that terrorism is at the heart of domestic unrest, and that the Al Khalifa regime has made a serious effort to implement a key recommendation of the BICI when in fact it has ignored almost all of that devastating report. Furthermore, the authors draw a dubious causality between the rise of anti-regime militancy and the P5+1 Iran nuclear deal and only mildly rebuke the regime for “treating protesters and medical professionals as terrorists.”

This response is not to exonerate Iran from its nefarious activities in the Persian Gulf region but, rather, to observe that the Al Khalifa ruling family has oppressed the Shia majority for decades, beginning long before the Arab Spring of 2011 and even before the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979. Levitt and Knights seem oblivious to the regime’s strategy of raising the specter of terrorism and the fear of Iran to strengthen support from the U.S. and the West. Their article seems to be a compendium of “facts” handed out by the Bahraini Ministry of Interior and/or the Bahraini National Security Agency as examples of “expanding Iranian networks” in order to justify their continued human rights violations and to buttress their Iran-bashing.

In its just-published 2017 World Report, Human Rights Watch warned against the Bahrain regime’s “accelerated repression” of peaceful activists and the continued detention and prosecution of human rights protesters. The report called on the government of Bahrain to “reinvigorate a stalled process of political reform by reversing the dissolution of al-Wifaq, releasing high-profile political detainees, and ending its harassment of activists.”

The article by Levitt and Knights ignores the multiple requirements that the BICI report placed on the Bahraini government in dealing with its dissidents under the law. It would be very sad indeed if the Trump administration allowed the Bahraini regime to free itself from these requirements.  The Al Khalifa government has flouted the rule of law for years and has violated the rights of its Shia majority in the name of fighting terrorism. Now this same government is spending huge sums of money to get their message across to the Trump administration through Washington lobbyists, including retired diplomats, senior military officers, and think tanks.

Instead of delving into the decades-old Shia grievances against the regime, the WINEP article amounts to no more than an apologia for the regime. It appears designed to help persuade the incoming administration to take a gentle view towards the regime’s continued repression as well as cement U.S. military ties to the country.

In citing “Bahrain’s continued willingness to serve as home base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet,“ the authors seem to ignore the fact that the presence of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain serves the interests of the regime and indirectly gives it protection. Moreover, U.S. taxpayers cover its rental and use. When I asked Bahraini officials back in the early 1970s why they signed the home-porting agreement with the US Navy, they told me openly that the Fleet’s presence bolstered their security. I lived for a year in 1972-73 in that same neighborhood and witnessed first-hand the interaction between senior Bahraini government officials and the US navy command. The Al Khalifa were sorry to see the British leave the island in 1971 but were happy that the Americans replaced them.

The WINEP article fails to seriously consider that the opposition to the Al Khalifa’s autocratic rule is quintessentially Bahraini and not a proxy of a foreign power. Several academics have warned in recent years that, if the Al Khalifa failed to respond to the reasonable demands of the peaceful opposition and continued their draconian repression, the opposition would become more militant and radicalized. In several LobeLog articles, I argued that if government didn’t meet such peaceful demands of the opposition as fair and free elections, a return to the 1973 constitution, and reinstating the dissolved National Assembly under the umbrella of the monarchy, the opposition would shift from calling for political reform to campaigning for regime change.

The execution last year of the prominent Shia leader Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia has also contributed to rising militancy in Bahrain. The continued persecution of Nabeel Rajab, other Al-Wefaq leaders, and human rights and pro-democracy activists clearly belies the regime’s claims regarding Iran. According to The New York Times, this weekend Bahrain executed three Shia citizens for allegedly attacking the police in 2014. Human Rights Watch condemned the executions and said that they were based on confessions obtained through torture.

Militant groups in Bahrain, as elsewhere in the region, can easily obtain whatever weapons they need in the over-militarized Gulf region to serve their goals. Even if Iran were not in the picture, Bahraini dissidents could find a way to arm themselves in the face of a brutally repressive regime. By refusing to heed the peaceful opposition put before it over the years, the Al Khalifa regime is now reaping the whirlwind. The regime might appear to be winning against the opposition in the short term. But its victory may yet prove Pyrrhic.

Photo: Bahrain protest in 2011

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. “This response is not to exonerate Iran from its nefarious activities in the Persian Gulf region”
    Of course not, and the WINEP reports are always completely unbiased and on the point.

  2. Mr Nakhleh, a very poor characterization and description of the situation in Bahrain for the following reasons:
    1. You’re not a reliable source to explore the situation in Bahrain since you are biased due to being associated with the security apparatus
    2. The protesters in Bahrain are freedom fighters and NOT terrorists fighting a minority tribe ruling over the majority tribe in this sheikdom
    3. Everybody including you have gotten used to using the word “terrorism or terrorist” in all cases and very casually!
    4. Bahrain was a property of Iran up until 40 years ago until the Brits tricked the Shah into giving it up! I wouldn’t be surprised if this property gets to be reclaimed through the UN in the future

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