by Giorgio Cafiero
Throughout 2017, Bahrain’s six-year-old crisis has sharpened. Political space is narrowing as the authorities in Manama have upheld the dissolution of al-Wefaq Islamic Society (the country’s dominant Shi’ite opposition society) and kept its leader, Ali Salman, in prison as punishment for “inciting hatred and disobedience and insulting public institutions.” This month, the king of Bahrain approved a constitutional amendment that permits the government to try civilians in military trials. In January, Bahrain executed three Shi’ites found guilty of killing policemen. Meanwhile, violence has increased outside of the capital. In 2016, there were a dozen armed attacks on police and security forces in the country. As of last month that number had already reached 11 for 2017.
As tensions between Bahrain’s marginalized Shi’ites and Sunni rulers escalate, the royal Al Khalifa family feels emboldened by Donald Trump’s administration and its prioritization of security issues above human rights. Trump’s ascendancy to the White House comes as a major relief to Bahrain’s rulers whom Barack Obama’s administration repeatedly irked. The expulsion of Tom Malinowski from Manama following the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor’s meeting with al-Wefaq members in 2014 most clearly underscored tensions between Manama and the previous administration, which called on the Al Khalifa rulers to make concessions to elements of the country’s Shi’ite opposition.
Rather than pressuring Arab Gulf sheikdoms on governance issues, the new American president and his inner circle are determined to reassure US allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that Washington will take their concerns about Iran’s foreign policy more seriously while enhancing US-GCC coordination in the quest to counter Tehran’s expanding influence. This shift in Washington’s foreign policy may soon be evident in Yemen, where the Trump administration is weighing the pros and cons of supporting a Saudi-UAE effort to strike against the Houthi militants in Hodeidah, although it has yet to make this decision. The same holds true for Syria, where on April 7 the US military fired 59 cruise missiles against one of the Iranian-backed regime’s air bases in response to the April 4 chemical attack in the Idlib area.
Although not enmeshed in a gruesome civil war, Bahrain is another area in the Arab world where the new administration is aligning Washington more closely with Riyadh to push back Iran’s extended influence. The Saudi government understands Bahrain’s Shi’ite protestors and activists to be operating on behalf of Iran’s regional ambitions. The Trump administration seems to share Riyadh’s view on this matter.
Last month, the US added two affiliates of the Saraya al-Ashtar group – Ahmad Hasan Yusuf and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi – to its Specially Designated Global Terrorists list. In response, Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed Washington’s “positive and important decision.” The State Department’s official statement confirmed that the designations followed “a recent increase in militant attacks in Bahrain, where Iran has provided weapons, funding, and training to militants.”
Also last month, Rex Tillerson’s State Department backed a sale of 19 F-16 jets to Bahrain after lifting any sales restrictions in place by the previous administration. Pointing to Bahrain as an example, Army General Joseph Votel told the House Armed Services Committee that weapons sales to foreign nations should not come with human rights-related preconditions that could threaten military-to-military relations. Votel stated that moving slowly on F-16 sales “continues to strain” the Washington-Manama alliance. As host of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet since 1995 and a “major non-NATO ally” since 2002, the Arab Gulf state participated in US military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as U.S. antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. According to the White House’s thinking, the Al Khalifa rulers are vulnerable to Iran’s regional conduct and thus Washington must step up its support for Manama to take a stand against Tehran.
Iran’s true role in Bahrain’s political crisis, however, remains unclear. Pro-government sources in Bahrain are convinced that Iran is arming elements of the Shi’ite opposition and that domestic terrorism is directly linked to Tehran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Others posit that all weaponry used by Shi’ite militants in the archipelago kingdom is home-made and that Iran has only lent moral and ideological support to Bahrain’s anti-government Shi’ite factions, nothing more.
Iran has a history of backing revolutionary Shi’ite causes in Bahrain, including in 1981 when Tehran was behind an unsuccessful anti-Khalifa coup. As Bahrain was once ruled by the Persian Empire, fears of Iranian/Persian hegemony shape Arab Gulf concerns about Iranian sovereign claims to the country. Routine statements from Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps figures about the island kingdom belonging to Iran only heighten such concerns.
According to one GCC interlocutor, if the Saudi or Emirati security forces, which entered the country in 2011 to help Bahraini forces quell the uprising, left Bahrain, many Bahraini Sunnis would follow for fear of living in a post-Khalifa Bahrain under Shi’ite rule. What many Bahraini Sunnis have seen in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s 2003 ouster in terms of the Shi’ite-led order in Baghdad harshly oppressing Iraq’s Sunni minority has deepened sectarian divisions in the island-sheikdom and raised fears among the Bahraini Sunnis about Iranian-fueled revolutionary activism in the country.
As the other Arab Gulf states view Bahrain (the GCC’s only Shi’ite-majority country) as the Council member most vulnerable to Iranian meddling, their leaders see the archipelago kingdom as their frontline in the quest to counter Tehran’s expanding influence. To Saudi and Emirati leaders, concessions to Bahrain’s Shi’ite activists threaten to embolden forces in the island-sheikdom committed to waging a Khomeini-inspired revolution in a GCC state, a perceived threat that the Council members find unacceptable. Undoubtedly, as an outcome of the 2011 unrest, the leadership in Manama has grown increasingly reliant on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for financial and security support. With less room to maneuver independently of Bahrain’s GCC allies, it is questionable whether the Al Khalifa rulers could even make concessions to the Shi’ite opposition.
Despite some inflammatory rhetoric from Iran and the Islamic Republic’s ties with certain elements of Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition, many in Bahrain’s Shi’ite communities are loyal to their nation and/or tribe, not any foreign regime. Ultimately, Bahrain’s Shi’ite communities are diverse and any analysis that puts all Bahraini Shi’ites into one category in terms of their relationship with Tehran overlooks the complexities of Shi’ite activism in the country and the multifaceted Bahraini-Iranian bilateral relationship.
Regardless of the peaceful nature of many Bahraini Shi’ite activists and the fact that many operate independently of Iran, the ruling Sunni monarchy’s further narrowing of political space may push more Shi’ites toward militancy and foreign support. This development would offer Iran a greater opportunity to capitalize on Shi’ite discontent in the archipelago kingdom to advance its own political interests.
As a small Arab Gulf state with a relatively small indigenous military force, Bahrain has long sacrificed its autonomy for stability and become dependent on external powers to guarantee its security. With the Trump administration doubling down on its support for the Al Khalifa family, the rulers in Manama are even less likely to make concessions to Shi’ites demanding political reforms and greater access to the country’s resources. Ultimately, a vicious cycle of marginalization and militancy diminishes the prospects for resolution of Bahrain’s six-year political crisis.