The Islamic Republic of Iran has reiterated in the past that its military strategy is based on “asymmetric warfare“ – Tehran will not confront the U.S. and its allies directly, given the superior military technology of the West, but rather through subversion and terrorism. Bahrain is, in fact, the ideal target for such an Iranian strategy. The actual stakes in the struggle for Bahrain are far greater than one would think, given its small physical size (760 sq. km.) and its tiny population (738,000).
When the U.S. entered the Second World War, Imperial Japan launched a sea-borne airstrike against the headquarters and ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Today, as is well known, the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet is in Bahrain. Iran does not need to employ its air force against the U.S. naval facility, but only to topple the pro-American regime of the al-Khalifa family and replace it with a new Bahraini regime backed by the Shi’a majority which seeks the immediate withdrawal of the fleet. In 2005, Shi’a demonstrators marched in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, showing their support for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Three years later in 2008, Shi’a demonstrators waved Hizbullah flags in Manama and called for closing U.S. bases in Bahrain.
The recent events in Bahrain have underlined the very volatile situation in which the small kingdom has been managing its affairs for the last two decades.
Nothing could be as descriptive of its unique situation as the narrative of the American analyst whose paper was leaked to the public through WikiLeaks: “The Sunni ruling family of tiny, Shi’a-majority Bahrain have long recognized that they needed outsiders – first the British, then the United States – to protect them from predatory neighbors, Iran foremost among them. Both Shahs and Ayatollahs have asserted claims to sovereignty over Bahrain from time to time. While keeping close to their American protectors, Bahrain’s rulers seek to avoid provoking Iran unnecessarily, and keep lines of communication with Iranian leaders open.”
The Sunni al-Khalifa family took Bahrain in 1783 from another Arab clan that acknowledged Persian overlordship. In 1971 the British colonizers left Bahrain at a time when the last Shah of Iran asserted and then withdrew a claim of sovereignty over the tiny island. After the Islamic revolution, the Iranian regime claimed sovereignty over Bahrain from time to time. Tensions between Bahrain and Iran developed again in February 2009 when Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran had sovereignty over Bahrain. He called Bahrain Iran’s 14th province (Saddam Hussein called Kuwait Iraq’s 19th province during the 1991 Gulf War). Bahrain halted natural gas negotiations with Iran in protest of the comments and demanded an official apology. Former Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki visited Bahrain at the time and presented an official apology.
It should come as no surprise that Bahraini rulers view Iran with deep suspicion and support fully the U.S. efforts to pressure and contain Iran. According to another leaked WikiLeaks document of April 2008, on the eve of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Bahrain in 2008, the king reiterated that his number-one security concern was Iran. The king told the American who prepared Rice’s visit that the purpose of the meeting was to demonstrate that “we have an alliance that will not stand by and watch countries fall to Iran one by one.”
Bahraini officials often tell their American counterparts that some Shi’a oppositionists are backed by Iran. The king himself has claimed that members of the opposition have received training in Lebanon with Hizbullah officers (even though the Americans were unable to confirm this report). The last known and proved Iranian involvement in Bahrain occurred in the mid-1990s when followers of Ayatollah Shirazi, who had received money and weapons from Iran, were rounded up and convicted of sedition (and later pardoned, while some engage today in legal politics). The Bahraini government presented evidence in Washington that the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards was involved in a 1995 Shiite uprising.
Nevertheless, as neighbors, Iran and Bahrain have had a long relationship centered largely around bilateral trade, though basic tourism and necessary regional cooperation also play a part. Since the international community and the United States in particular began to condemn Iran for its nuclear program, Bahrain’s relations with the Islamic Republic have become increasingly strained. Bahraini officials have publicly stated that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program in violation of its Non-Proliferation Agreement obligation. Moreover, according to the WikiLeaks document referring to Bahrain, dated August 2008, roughly 30% of the Bahraini Shi’a follow clerics who look to more senior clerics in Iran for guidance. The majority look to Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq and a few to the late Muhammad Fadlallah and others in Lebanon. Bahrain’s most popular cleric is Sheikh Isa Qassim, who has occasionally endorsed the Iranian regime’s doctrine of “velayat-e-faqih” (guardianship of the jurist – the Supreme Leader). According to the same WikiLeaks report, a number of Bahrain’s middle-aged clerics studied in Qom during the years when Saddam Hussein obstructed study in Iraq.
In other words, Bahrain rulers are practically sitting on a barrel of explosives whose detonator lies in the hands of the leaders of Iran. Bahrain’s precarious regime lies on a very unstable social fabric:
a. 60-70% of Bahrain’s 500,000 citizens are Shi’a, while the other half-million residents are guest workers.
b. Shi’a are poorer than Sunni Bahrainis.
c. About 15% of Bahrainis are Persian and speak Persian at home and tend to belong to the professional classes.
The protests of mid-February and the subsequent violent repression by the authorities have underlined once more the deep grievances of the Shi’a majority. The protesters’ demands have two main objectives: to force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top governmental posts and all critical decisions, and address the claims that the Shi’a face systematic discrimination and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military. Specifically, the protesters called for the government to provide more jobs and better housing, free all political detainees, and abolish the system that offers Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from around the Middle East.
As a measure of appeasement, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has ordered an increase in food subsidies and social welfare payments, and a grant of 1,000 dinars ($2,653) to each Bahraini family. According to Bahraini newspapers, more than 71% of the families entitled to this grant have utilized it. The ruling family entrusted the management of the crisis to Crown Prince Salman, who called for a dialogue with an opposition inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian models, which is not ready at this point to compromise before satisfying its main demands.
No doubt this dire situation is not pleasant for the U.S. Due to their deep interests in Bahrain and the Persian Gulf, the Americans have been monitoring the domestic situation there for quite some time. Nevertheless, the analysts seem to have been very condescending towards the Bahraini monarchy to which it attributed a closer grip and control of the country, together with a proclaimed policy of liberalization. On the one hand, the Americans were very much aware of Bahrain’s deep social, political, ethnic, and religious problems, but on the other hand, this did not trigger warnings regarding the capabilities of the regime to deal with such dire crises as the actual one. On the contrary, the Americans painted the rulers in a very positive way and stressed their commitment to political reform and reconciliation.
The December 2009 WikiLeaks document states as follows: “King Hamid understands that Bahrain cannot prosper by repression….There is more religious freedom in Bahrain than in most neighboring countries…two election cycles have seen the integration of the Shi’a opposition into the political process. While a Shi’a rejectionist fringe continues to boycott the process, their influence remains limited as the mainstream Wifaq Party has shown an ability to work with the government to achieve results for its constituents. Discrimination against Shi’a persists, however, and the government has sought to deflect criticism by engaging with Wifaq and focusing more public spending on housing and social welfare projects. So long as Wifaq remains convinced of the benefits of political participation, the long-term outlook for Bahrain’s stability is good.” (!)
The protests in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, have created a serious situation for the U.S. national security and for its economic interests. According to a late 2009 WikiLeaks document, U.S. companies have won major contracts between 2007-2009 that include Gulf Air’s purchase of 24 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, a $5 billion joint venture with Occidental Petroleum to revitalize the Awali field, and well over $300 million in foreign military sales.
Bahrain has been a faithful ally to the U.S., has developed very close intelligence cooperation with the U.S., especially on issues of counter-terrorism, cooperates in the military and naval fields, as well as in the organization of an anti-Iranian Arab alliance. Under American aegis, Bahrain has improved its stance on human rights and political freedoms, although it seems not enough to prevent the outburst of protest that occurred in mid-February 2011.
The U.S. has every reason to be worried if Bahrain tumbles under Iranian hegemony. Indeed, all the ingredients are present for a potential change in Bahrain. It is also obvious that only through the use of force can the Bahraini regime survive. For how long? Certainly for as long as the U.S. is willing to support the regime and ignore its actions against human rights, and as long as there is no overt confrontation with Iran. Even more worrisome for the U.S. is the fact that this Shi’a protest could very easily expand to the neighboring eastern Saudi shore of Al-Ahsaa where most of the population is also Shi’a. Such a situation and potential continued unrest could create a serious challenge to the military presence of the U.S. in the Gulf area, especially if it is exploited by Iranian agents interested in provoking havoc in an “American preserve” at a time when Tehran itself is feeling the weight of popular protest, encouraged openly by the Obama Administration.
In view of the above, there is a clear possibility that the American naval presence in Bahrain will become a target for potential Iranian terrorist acts.
It should be stressed that Iran has already identified a situation of American weakness in protecting its allies in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Iran therefore is increasing its support to subversive elements throughout the Persian Gulf and especially in Bahrain.
Finally, it seems that if Iran perceives a situation where the U.S. would treat the king as it treated Mubarak earlier, this would definitely encourage Iran to increase its offensive subversion in Bahrain and possibly in eastern Saudi Arabia.