Anti-government protests in Bahrain last year, which came on heels of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, have again brought to the forefront long simmering tensions between the tiny island kingdom’s Shi’a majority and the ruling Sunni minority.
The unrest has also reinvigorated debate over the role Shi’a Iran plays in the ongoing conflict. The Bahraini government has called the protests part of a “foreign” plot, widely perceived at the time as a veiled reference to Iran. The notion of an “Iranian hand” was reinforced when leading Shi’a political movements announced they had formed a “Coalition for a Bahraini Republic,” a move Sunnis interpreted as a call for an end to the monarchy and the establishment of a Shiite “Islamic Republic.” In February and March of 2011, during the peak of the protests, Bahraini security forces, reinforced by Saudi military troops and Emirati police, were mobilized to crush what was seen as an overt revolt.
In covering these protests over the past year, Middle East Voices has spoken to dozens of Bahrainis on both sides of the conflict and several experts. Among the prevailing thoughts: Many Sunni Bahrainis believe Iran aims to take over their country; Iran has helped create that fear; and while Iran may feed off the unrest in Bahrain, it is not attempting a takeover of the island nation.
Bahrain, ruled today by the al-Khalifa royal family, has a complex history of conquest and defeat. What is important to this narrative is that the Bani Utbah tribe of Qatar – of which the al-Khalifas were a family group – captured Bahrain from the Persians in the late 18th Century. Bahrain was a protectorate of Britain from the 1830s to 1971, and throughout that time, Iran tried to reassert its historic claim on Bahrain. For instance, in the 1920s, Iran’s Shah wrote a letter to the Allied Nations demanding Bahrain be returned to Tehran. And in 1957, Iran’s parliament declared Bahrain to be Iran’s “14th province.”
Former Pentagon official Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “In 1970, when the British were leaving the Gulf,” Rubin told Middle East Voices, “the Iranians – the Shah – staked his claim to Bahrain again, and the United Nations went in.” The world body organized a popular referendum, says Rubin, allowing Bahrainis to determine their future.
“The Bahrainis decided overwhelmingly that they wanted to be independent. They did not want to be part of Iran,” Rubin said.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Tehran once again laid claim to Bahrain, on the basis that most Bahrainis were, like Iranians, Shi’a Muslims. At the same time, inspired by Iran’s revolution, thousands of Shi’a took to the streets in Bahrain. Some, says Rubin, merely called for reforms; others wanted to bring down the al-Khalifa government and replace it with an Islamic regime.
An important turning point came in December 1981, when a Tehran-based group called the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain organized an uprising and attempted a coup in Manama. The plot failed only because the neighboring United Arab Emirates got wind of it and tipped off Manama. Rubin said the plot was “most certainly” hatched in Tehran.
“The reason why I say ‘certainly,’” Rubin said, “is because the Bahraini opposition at that point in time published a series of magazine and newspaper articles in which they made no secret – not only of the fact that Iran was giving them moral support, but also that Iran was giving them training.”
A ‘fifth column?’
In 2007, an Iranian newspaper editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, wrote an editorial suggesting that Bahrain should be re-absorbed into Iran. Shariatmadari, an Ayatollah appointee, argued that Iran had lost Bahrain “through an illicit conformity between the former Shah and the governments of Britain and the U.S.” According to Shariatmadari, it was time to set things “right.”
That same year, in an interview with Britain’s Telegraph, former Iranian diplomat Adel Assadinia claimed that a network of trained Iranian agents was operating throughout the Gulf, actively recruiting fellow Shi’a to help undermine Sunni Arab governments. In the event of an American or Israeli attack on Iran, the so-called “fifth column” was instructed to spring into action and attack American and European business interests in wealthy Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
The Iranian government believes that to survive, it needs permanent bases throughout the Middle East. Anybody who contemplates threatening or invading Iran will have those cells unleashed against them.” – Adel Assadinia, Telegraph, March 4, 2007
A few days after the interview’s publication, the Gulf Times reported a statement by Iran’s embassy in Manama which dismissed Assadinia’s claims: “The motives for the publication of such controversial and unrealistic reports are perfectly clear to all. The claims are fabricated, have no shred of truth and are part of doomed attempts to damage relations between Iran and the Gulf countries.”
Bahrain’s nerves were further frayed when, in February 2009, the Iranian press quoted the Speaker of Iran’s Parliament Ali Akber Nateq Nouri, who was closely aligned with hardline mullahs, as blaming Iran’s last Shah for losing Bahrain and repeating the claim that it was “Iran’s 14th province.”
Rubin says that given Bahrain’s history with Iran and, in particular, Iran’s apparent role in the 1981 uprising and coup attempt, it is understandable that Bahrain would blame Iran for today’s protests. Except this time around, says Rubin, things are not as black and white:
“It’s certainly credible that Iran would be trying to co-opt the uprising,” he said. “They’ve tried to co-opt uprisings elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean they are being successful at it. And it doesn’t mean that one can simply wave away the grievances, which are very real inside Bahrain.”
Iran not ‘suicidal’
Historian and Middle East analyst Dr. John E. Peterson takes that notion even further. “The idea of a direct, external threat from Iran,” said he, “whether it be political, military or whatever else, that Iran should try to regain control [of Bahrain] completely disappeared with the Shah’s referendum.”
Peterson said the Shah agreed to the 1970 plebiscite as a “face-saving” measure. “There was no way that Iran would ever get control of Bahrain, and I think that’s really been accepted by the Islamic Republic.” Accepted, he said, in spite of periodic inflammatory statements or comments in the media such as Shariatmadari’s in 2007 and Nouri’s in 2009.
Even if Iran were to consider Bahrain as its “property,” Peterson says that between the other Gulf Cooperation Council states, the U.S. and all of NATO backing Bahrain, it would be “suicidal” for Tehran to attempt to take over the island kingdom.
At the same time, Peterson concedes there are some within Bahrain’s ruling family who believe that Iran would like to reclaim Bahrain. “And,” he added, “some of these hardline opposition people…did have connections to Iran in the past, but the idea that they are agents of Iran, there has never been any proof of that.”
Just look at who’s demonstrating, Peterson says: “In terms of active opposition, we’re talking about demonstrators – obviously not led by anyone – and secondly, the more active and from time to time violent opposition is by young men in their teens and their twenties.”
Some of these hardline opposition people…did have connections to Iran in the past, but the idea that they are agents of Iran, there has never been any proof of that.
These youths, he pointed out, are burning tires, setting oil fires across roadways and throwing Molotov cocktails. “You don’t need Iran to give them that,” Peterson said.
In other words, if Iran really were behind the uprising, Peterson believes it would be arming youths with something more deadly than bottles of gasoline. “We would see the kind of armed resistance that has begun to appear in Syria,” Peterson said.
Bahrain’s Independent Commission weighs in
In June 2011, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa ordered the formation of a commission to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during the February and March crackdown on protests. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) issued its final report in November, five months later. Among other findings, BICI said they found no evidence that Iran had orchestrated the Bahrain protests. The Commission also found the government of Bahrain guilty of illegal arrests and the use of excessive force, unfair trials and the systematic use of torture by police and security in order to induce confessions. Following the release of that report, King Hamad announced reforms to ensure that “those painful events won’t be repeated.”
Amnesty International recently released its own 58-page report on Bahrain’s response to the BICI recommendations. It concluded that those reforms have been piecemeal, aimed more at cleaning up Bahrain’s international image than actually admitting responsibility for rights abuses and seeing that justice is done. Further, the London-based rights group says that the government has done little to address the “deep-seated grievances” of Bahrain’s Shi’a population. The Amnesty report made only one mention of Iran. It said that during the peak of the unrest Bahraini media orchestrated a campaign against the Shi’a community, and that “[t]hose who led and or were active in the protests were labeled as traitors working for Iran.”
NOTE: A correction was made to the first line of this report, which when originally posted, mistakenly reversed references to Sunni and Shi’a populations in Bahrain.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.