Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Since Bahrain’s announcement on forging ties with Israel, demands within Iran to restore Bahrain to Iranian rule have returned with greater intensity. Iran has repeatedly warned recently that it sees Israeli activity in Bahrain as endangering its own security interests and declares that it will not hesitate to attack targets in the kingdom, whether by itself or through its proxies.
- Bahrain is of particular historical, religious, and political importance to Iran. Bahrain was once under Persian rule (1602‒1783), and as Iranian’s “14th province,” it sent representatives to the Iranian Majlis (parliament). A recent documentary film, The 14th Province, has won prizes in Iranian film festivals organized by revolutionary elements.
- A Sunni minority rules Bahrain’s Shiite majority, and part of the population is Persian in origin. Increased Iranian subversion in the kingdom through local Shiite terrorist groups and Shiite opposition parties operated by Iran is highly likely. Leading Iranian media, such as Kayhan, which reflects the opinions of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are already inciting Bahrainis to pick up arms.
- Terrorist cells in Bahrain operate with Iranian supervision and funding. Although most of these cells have been thwarted by Bahrain, those still active are capable of destabilizing the country if Iran turns up the flames.
- Another question is whether Iran will try to invade Bahrain in a manner reminiscent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Tehran supports. Bahrain is susceptible to an Iranian strike involving ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones on strategic targets in the kingdom, despite the fact that it hosts the U.S. Navy’s main naval base for the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf region.
Iran has repeatedly warned recently that it sees Israeli activity in Bahrain as endangering its own security interests, and it will not hesitate to attack in response. Since the signing of the Abraham Accords and the bolstering of their diplomatic-security significance (with visits to the kingdom by Prime Minister Bennett, Foreign Minister Lapid, and Defense Minister Gantz, along with the Negev Summit in Israel attended by Bahrain’s foreign minister, among others), Iran has been more and more concerned about the implications of Israel’s growing ties with the Gulf States in general and with Bahrain in particular. Iran also claims that the Israeli presence in Kurdistan endangers its national security and hence launched missiles at a “Mossad base” in Erbil on February 13, 2022.1
Top Iranian Officials Lambast Growing Ties with Israel
In his weekly press conference on April 4, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh drew a connection between the expected appointment of an Israeli military attaché to the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is stationed in Bahrain, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC’s) missile attack on Erbil in mid-March.2 Asked what the appointment meant for Iran, Khatibzadeh said it could be summed up in one word, “Erbil,” and added that Israel “is doing all it can to prevent the normalization of the situation in the region [i.e., the Gulf and Iraq].”
Khatibzadeh also criticized the Negev Summit, saying that the “[Arab] governments that took part in the meeting [the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and Morocco], which their peoples have rejected, are seeking legitimization in other places.” He added that Israel was trying to redefine the Arab agenda by turning Iran into a threat at the expense of the Palestinian people but declared that “the main thing in the Islamic world is the Palestinian issue.” Back in October 2021, the spokesperson criticized Foreign Minister Lapid’s visit to the kingdom and described his reception by its rulers as “humiliating and against the will of the noble and free people of Bahrain…. This step will not legitimize the Zionist regime and will not affect the liberation of Al-Quds [Jerusalem].”3
President Raisi, in an April 3 telephone conversation with his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih, asserted that “any country in the region that overlooks the power-hungry machinations of the United States and Israel jeopardizes not only its security interests but also the security of the entire Islamic ummah.”4
In a similar vein, IRGC Commander Hossein Salami said on March 30, 2022, during a visit to the island of Abu Musa—strategically located at the opening of the Strait of Hormuz and disputed with the United Arab Emirates—that “unfortunately, some of the states along the southern littoral of the Persian Gulf have established diplomatic and security ties with the Zionist entity, posing a grave threat to the security of the region and to the regimes themselves…. We declare and warn,” Salami continued, “that continuing these relations is unacceptable, and the Gulf States must recognize that the contaminating presence of the Zionist regime in any location undermines security and that its existence in the region is, in any case, intolerable. The Gulf States must rethink their political behavior.”5
On April 5, the lead headline of IRGC-affiliated newspaper Javan— “Warning: What Happened in Erbil Can Happen in Bahrain”—echoed the words of the Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Iran, the paper added, had admonished Israel that “anything bad that happens in the Gulf will not remain unanswered.” Javan also quoted Salami’s demand that “the Zionists stop sowing evil in the region,” warning that otherwise, they would again “suffer the bitter taste of the missile attack.”6
In acknowledging responsibility for the March 13 attack, the IRGC wrote that the target was a “strategic center that spreads the Zionist evil in Erbil” and that “after [Israel’s] latest crimes and Iran’s avowal that it would respond to them, the Zionist center was struck by powerful and accurate missiles.” The announcement warned “the Zionist regime” that “new crimes will draw a harsh and destructive response…. The security of the Iranian homeland constitutes a red line, and we will not allow anyone to violate it.”
Tehran Threatens and Attacks Its Neighbors
As Tehran sees a growing threat from Bahrain, it declares that it will not hesitate to attack targets in the kingdom, whether by itself or through its proxies, the Houthis in Yemen and the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Tehran may already be preparing public opinion for such a measure.
On September 4, 2021, the Houthis simultaneously attacked several Saudi targets, including the city of Dammam in the eastern part of the kingdom not far from Bahrain, with weaponized drones and ballistic missiles. The target was the giant Aramco oil company’s Ras Tanura residential camp. On January 17 and 24, 2022, the Houthis attacked the neighboring United Arab Emirates, claiming they targeted the Al Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi with Zulfiqar ballistic missiles and “important sites” in Dubai with Samad-3 UAVs. During the January 17 attack, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) made its first operational use. THAAD is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles before they reenter the atmosphere.
On the day of the attack in Dammam, and probably not coincidently, Iran strongly criticized Bahrain “for not learning the lessons of the past and making the same mistakes in its suicide route…. It ties its fate to the fate of the illegal Zionist entity that is on its way to oblivion.” The Aramco facility at Ras Tanura (in the Dammam region) is only 50 miles from Manama, the capital of Bahrain. The target was probably chosen to signal to Bahrain that it was within range of Houthi missiles and drones. An editorial in Kayhan, a mouthpiece for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, accused the royal family (“the Pirates of Manama”) of treason and “imprisonment, torture and killing of innocent Bahraini civilians.” The Iranian publication added that, just a few days earlier, Bahrain inaugurated — “contrary to the opinion of the proud people of Bahrain—an Israeli embassy in Manama, ignoring the protests of thousands of Bahrainis who showed solidarity with Palestine…. On the same day, Bahrain also inaugurated an embassy in Israel.”7
Sowing Discord in Bahrain
Tehran also amplifies Bahraini opposition voices against the kingdom’s rulers, normalizing relations with Israel, and the Fifth Fleet’s presence in the kingdom. Kayhan published a statement by the Coalition Youth of 14 February Revolution (a Bahraini opposition group formed during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising): “One of the most important functions and missions of the American military base is to preserve the Al Khalifa dynasty, which serves them in Bahrain. The base has trained Jordanian, Pakistani, Syrian, and Yemeni mercenaries on how to suppress Bahrain’s popular uprising that began in mid-February 2011.”8 The opposition group averred that Bahrain has turned into a “den of espionage as well as a key center for reconnaissance and spying activities against Iran and resistance groups.” The Coalition Youth of 14 February Revolution demanded the dismantling of the U.S. naval base at Juffair, Bahrain, and the expulsion of “all American and Israeli officers, security, and military advisers.”9
The Israeli-Bahraini normalization of relations is another significant and painful blow to Iran’s soft belly. However, unlike in the case of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain is of particular historical, religious, and political importance to Iran. Bahrain was once under Persian rule (1602‒1783), and as Iranian’s “14th province,” it sent representatives to the Iranian Majlis (parliament). A Sunni minority rules Bahrain’s Shiite majority, and part of the population is Persian in origin. In recent years, especially during President Ahmadinejad’s tenure, demands were raised to restore Bahrain to Iranian rule. Since Bahrain’s announcement on forging ties with Israel, those calls have returned at greater intensity.
Bahrain, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, is in Iran’s crosshairs. As noted, it hosts the U.S. Navy’s main base for the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf region and representatives of the Royal British Navy. Bahrain effectively serves as a microcosm of the significant processes and upheavals in the Middle East, which have gradually unraveled the old order and the old narratives (the Sykes-Picot Treaty, territories for peace, and pan-Arabism). These have been replaced by a new regional order that responds to growing threats posed by Iran—in the short and medium-term, the terror threat, and in the long-term, the nuclear threat, which would provide Iran with an umbrella to widen its subversion and terror activity across the region.
Even before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Iran has pressed, principally via the Revolutionary Guards, to destabilize the Bahraini kingdom and bring down the minority Sunni rule. Bahrain’s decision, with apparent Saudi backing, to normalize relations with Israel—and all the more so, to augment them in the diplomatic, security, and economic spheres—will very likely lead to increased Iranian subversion in the kingdom through the local Shiite terrorist groups and the Shiite opposition parties that Iran operates, with assistance from the Lebanese Hizbullah. Leading Iranian media, such as Kayhan, are already inciting Bahrainis to pick up arms to protect their rights and predicting that Bahrain will be the first of the Gulf States to fall.
Iran is already signaling its plans for a new order during the new Iranian year (1401), which began on March 21, 2022. Kayhan has been outlining a process in which the Gulf States and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula will “win independence.” The process advances from Yemen, when “the Yemenis decisively defeat the U.S.-Zionist-engineered invasion of their country,” to Bahrain, where “the long-oppressed Bahraini people should be assisted in materializing their dream of establishing a democratic state free of the tentacles of a highly repressive [Sunni] minority regime,” to Saudi Arabia, where the paper envisions, by the end of the year, “the end of the clannish rule of a minority cult…where Muslims are massacred on the slightest pretext and the tenets of Islam are being trampled by a megalomaniac in league with the Americans and the Zionists.”10
The IRGC, through its special-operations arm, the Quds Force, is responsible for implementing the policy of exporting the revolution to Bahrain and inciting the Shiites against its rulers. As soon as the Israeli-Bahraini ties were established, the IRGC issued an announcement calling for rebellion and civil protest in Bahrain:
For the executioner, the ruler of Bahrain, harsh revenge awaits from the fighters for Jerusalem and the proud Muslims of the kingdom…. The shameful step taken by the royal [Al Khalifa] family, and the government that is dependent on it, of establishing relations with the Zionist entity against the opinion and the ideals of the Muslim residents of the country is a great folly that lacks all legitimacy and will receive a fitting response.
The domino effect of renewing relations with the Zionist regime—taken by several Arab rulers [implying Saudi Arabia] and to the delight of the White House and the hated and foolish U.S. president—is a continuation of the humiliation of the Muslim countries and the plundering of their natural resources and wealth…. All this is in order to provide security to Israel and to hurt the Palestinians. However, in reversing the equations, these steps will, in fact, bolster the determination of the Islamic ummah and bring to the surface the hidden and unseen capabilities of the anti-Zionist resistance to expel the cancer named Israel from the geography of the Muslim world.
The document warns “Al Khalifa and other arrogant traitors of the regime in Bahrain” against
opening the gates to the entry and influence of the Zionist regime in the strategic region of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman… The satanic and cruel measures taken by the tyrannical regime in Bahrain, like other satanic plans and treasonous plans for a compromise, have been of no benefit to the United States and the supporters of the Zionist regime; instead, those who stood behind these treasonous and virulent steps will eventually be a target of the holy rage and deadly revenge of the Islamic ummah and especially the Shiite residents of Bahrain, who now wave proudly the flag of “We love you [Imam] Hossein” [the age-old symbol of Shiite sacrifice]…. These [Shiites] are recalling the humiliation and will tear the mask from the face of those who pose an ongoing threat to the security of the West Asian region and of the Muslim world through acts of oppression, terror, murder, and the sowing of instability and insecurity.11
Iran Versus Growing Ties between Israel and Arabs
As the cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States expands, Iran will try to thwart it with intensified subversive activity, employing the proxy organizations under its authority. It will not hesitate to launch missiles and drones at Bahrain. Iran does not settle for words and is working to destabilize Bahrain, particularly by mobilizing and inciting the Shiite population. In so doing, Iran uses instructors from the Lebanese Hizbullah (according to the model of the local Shiite militias in Iraq and Yemen) to promote its interests and prepare the ground for a coup in Bahrain. It also employs clandestine cells, information collection, and the incitement of the Shiite population to protest and subversive activity. In 2013, the Quds Force set up the Islamic resistance—the (Malik) Al-Ashtar Brigades (Saraya al-Ashtar)—in an attempt to overthrow the Royal Bahraini family, using the Hizbullah model.12
These statements, which undermine Bahrain’s Arabness, independence, and sovereignty—albeit unusual—intensify Bahraini concerns about Iran’s ongoing incitement, subversion, and repeated attempts to overthrow the monarchy. The Iranian threats, and the feeling that the United States is no longer a solid and reliable partner, underpin Bahrain’s and other Gulf States’ warming of ties with Israel to forge a regional alliance against Iran. Those countries are particularly frustrated by the United States’ unwillingness to help them defend against the growing threat of Iranian-made UAVs, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles employed by the Houthis that have targeted critical oil and civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and at the same time, by U.S. enthusiasm to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran and even remove the IRGC from the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation list. Senior Iranian officials continue to claim that until its independence, Bahrain was Iran’s 14th province, and they harshly criticize the Shah’s “disgraceful” decision to cede Bahrain. For example, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of Kayhan and a close associate of Khamenei, stated in July 2007 that “the governments of the Gulf states were established as a result of the direct interference of global condescension [i.e., the Western powers]…and were accused by their people of collaborating with the Zionist entity…. They know full well that the earthquake that shook Iran [the Islamic Revolution] would bring [sooner or later] the collapse of their illegal regimes.” He said this was not a personal opinion but that of the Iranian and Bahraini people. A recent documentary film, The 14th Province, which deals with the events that led to Bahrain’s declaration of independence in 1971, has won prizes in Iranian film festivals organized by revolutionary elements. The Unforgivable Sin: Separating Bahrain from Iran: The Fake Referendum, a new book, has also been published recently.13
From Iran’s standpoint, the enhancement of diplomatic and security ties between Israel and the United States on the one hand and Bahrain—which it still views as part of Iran—on the other, and the strengthening of the Israeli presence in the region, constitute red lines. Iran sees these unfolding relations as entering a new and dangerous stage, moving toward Iran’s backyard and encircling its borders. Iran’s attempts to destabilize Bahrain via the Shiite majority and terrorist organizations, recruited from within and aided by the successful Hizbullah and Houthi models, will likely intensify and become more violent, particularly in the vicinity of Manama. Iranian propaganda is already paving the way by blatantly inciting the Shiite majority against the normalization of ties with Israel. Terrorist cells in Bahrain operate with Iranian supervision and funding dating back to Qasem Soleimani. Although most of these cells have been thwarted by Bahrain, those still active are capable of destabilizing the country if Iran turns up the flames.14
Will Iran Invade Bahrain?
Another question is whether Iran, which is genuinely concerned about the growing “Zionist” presence in the Gulf region and on its northern border, will try to invade Bahrain in a manner reminiscent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Tehran supports.15 Iran would thereby aim to regain sovereignty over a country it sees as its rightful possession and as posing a growing danger to its security, even if this entails risking a direct confrontation with the United States and Saudi Arabia. Such a scenario has probably been discussed in Iran, and contingency plans have been developed to implement it. For now, books and films on the subject are being produced there, possibly to prepare local public opinion for such a move.
Meanwhile, Bahrain is more susceptible to an Iranian strike (involving ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, drones, etc.) on strategic targets in the kingdom to demonstrate its anger over the warming of ties with Israel, as Tehran hinted recently. American anti-aircraft radars and defenses for the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain would detect any attack on the country. Iran may, deliberately or not—hit U.S. military targets as part of a confrontation in the Persian Gulf.
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9 https://kayhan.ir/en/news/101344/bahraini-group-calls-for-eviction-of-us-naval-base ; https://tinyurl.com/14f2011comarnews419185
12 Malik al-Ashtar was one of the close followers of the Imam Ali and fought in the battles of the early days of Islam (the Battles of the Camel, Siffin, Yarmouk, and others), and is viewed as a fearless and undaunted fighter.