Iran and Bahrain: The New York Times’ Uncritical Take

by Jim Lobe

I was pretty surprised Monday when, in the front-page New York Times article about the implementation agreement reached Sunday between the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva, I read the following in the fourth paragraph:

“It [the agreement] comes as Tehran has sought to expand its influence in the Middle East by providing weapons and sometimes members of its own paramilitary Quds Force, in what Western nations view as destabilizing activities in countries including Syria Bahrain and Yemen, according to interviews with intelligence, military, diplomatic and government officials.”

“Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “I know something about Iran’s activities in Syria, but Yemen and especially Bahrain, to which I’ve devoted substantial attention, I hadn’t heard so much about.

On the latter, the story picked up toward the end with the following assertions:

In Bahrain, where Iran has ties to several Shiite groups, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on the police, security officials last week seized a ship headed for the country with 50 Iranian-made hand grenades and nearly 300 commercial detonators marked “made in Syria.”

The two Bahrainis captured told interrogators that they had been trained in Iran and were directed by Bahraini opposition figures based there.

The country’s public security chief, Tareq al-Hassan, said that information provided by the suspects had also led to the seizure of plastic explosives, detonators, bombs, automatic rifles and ammunition in a warehouse.

Now, the only place I’ve seen this story seriously promoted is on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations and, to be more precise, Elliott Abrams’ “Pressure Points” blog. In a Jan. 3 post entitled “Iran Continues Subversion Despite the Nuclear Negotiations,” Abrams suggested that the Obama administration had not publicized this incident so as not to jeopardize the nuclear negotiations in Geneva. He dutifully cited the “Bahraini authorities” about the discovery of various kinds of weapons — some Iranian-made, others Syrian-made — “in a warehouse and onboard a boat intercepted as it was heading to the country.”

“Is this just propaganda from the Government of Bahrain?” Abrams asked rhetorically. “No; I’ve checked with US authorities and these reports are accurate.”

Now, if you do a Google search, you’ll find that even the Bahraini authorities have not accused Iran of direct involvement in this case. Nor have other Gulf states, including the ruling al-Khalifa family’s chief protector, Saudi Arabia, made such an accusation. And what’s really remarkable is that Abrams in the past has rightly and repeatedly criticized Bahrain’s government for using trumped-up charges to arrest (in some cases torture), try, and imprison leaders of the majority Shia community there for political reasons. So why is Abrams so certain that a) the Bahraini authorities are telling the truth about this incident and not just trying to bolster their constant charges of Iranian subversion; and b) the import of weapons into Bahrain is being organized by Iran, as opposed to, for example, Shia militias in Iraq whose ties to the Bahraini Shia community have historically been much closer? Because he “checked with US authorities?” That seems a tad vague under the circumstances.

But now this same story has been picked up by the Times whose reporters, Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, assert without any qualification or attribution that Bahraini “security officials” did indeed seize a ship” laden with various kinds of arms and that two of the captured Bahrainis “told interrogators that they had been trained in Iran and were directed by Bahraini opposition figures based there.”

How do the two reporters know that these accounts are true? In this case, they don’t even cite the “US authorities” that Abrams allegedly check with. (This is the same Michael Gordon who sometimes co-authored pieces with Judith Miller in the run-up to the Iraq War, including the notorious Sep 8, 2002 article, “The U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” in which they claimed that “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb,” among them, the infamous “specially designed aluminum tubes.”) They report it as fact.

In any event, I decided I would ask our contributor, Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer and serious expert on Bahrain (and author of Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society, a classic study of the country first published in 1976 and re-printed in 2011) what he made of the Times‘ account and its assertions about Iran’s actions in the countries identified by Gordon and Schmitt as Iranian targets. This was his emailed reply:

I was a bit surprised to see the New York Times lump together Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain so cavalierly as objects of Iranian military adventurism. The veteran reporters Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt should have known that Iran’s relations with these three countries are very different and driven by the particular conditions in each country.

On Yemen, former Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh for years had accused Iran of stoking and supporting the Huthi rebellion in the north in order to get American and Saudi support in his fight against the Huthis. The Saudis went in, but the Americans had no convincing evidence of Iran’s unproven involvement with the Huthis.

Washington’s involvement in Yemen in recent years, even before Saleh was removed from power, was driven by al-Qa’ida’s presence in some parts of the country and not by claims about Iran’s unproven seeming support of the Huthis.

On Syria, Iran’s military support of Assad and physical presence in Syria are well known. The Iranians want Assad to stay in power because of the strategic triangular relationship that has existed between Iran, the Assad regime, and Hizballah for decades. Syria has been Iran’s linchpin in the Arab world.

The veracity of the NYT report on Bahrain is questionable. The two reporters should know better and should have been more nuanced. Perhaps their report was a nod to some hardliners in Washington who oppose any deal with Iran on the nuclear program. I am afraid the Gordon/Schmitt report might give the impression the NYT is falling in the same neocon-Israeli trap about Iran.

One should not discount the possibility that some Bahraini Shia radicals, who have given up on the possibility of dialogue with the regime, as I said in my recent op-ed on Bahrain, have had contacts with some elements of the Revolutionary Guard or the Quds Force in Iran for the purpose of committing violent acts in Bahrain. Iran’s main Shia connection in Bahrain, however, has been the al-Wefaq party.

This group supported the King’s reform program back in 2001-02, and many of its leaders, some of whom lived in Iran, returned from exile and expressed readiness to work with the regime to bring about genuine reform in Bahrain. They remain committed to meaningful dialogue with the regime and to a peaceful solution of the political crisis in the country.

There is no evidence to indicate that either Iran or al-Wefaq have made a shift away from dialogue with the regime to violent plotting against the ruling family.

It is disingenuous for the Times to lump the three countries together as if Iran’s support for Assad should be synonymous with military plotting against Al Khalifa. In fact, the Bahraini foreign minister several months ago criticized President Obama for clumping together Bahrain, Syria, and Iraq as countries where sectarianism is becoming vicious and bloody.

The weapons were seized on a boat, not a “ship” as the Times has claimed. They could have come from a location on the Iranian coast or from any other place in the northern Persian Gulf or the Shatt al-Arab estuary. We should be very careful lest we are duped by information or intelligence, which the Bahraini security services might have obtained through “interrogations” of the people arrested on the boat. It’s disappointing the Times did not take a more strategic look at Iranian-Bahraini relations and published, as fact, a claim about Iranian weapons heading toward Bahrain.

Photo: Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa meets with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on Sept. 30, 2013 in New York.

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Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. It is not only Elliot Abrams who are putting out the dubious claims about the ever-so-convenient seizure of weapons and terrorist tools on the boat. Charlie Rose let neo-con Max Boot get away with saying the government of Iran sent that boat which was seized.

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