The relationship between Iran and Bahrain has become a victim of the on-going Arab Spring. Despite the increasing animosity between the two neighboring countries, they have no choice but to overcome the current tide in their bilateral ties.
Relations between Tehran and Manama have deteriorated over the past year and a half, with sustained attacks by Iranian media over the turn of events in Bahrain. To further infuriate Bahraini authorities, Iran has raised the issue of Bahrain in the P5+1 talks concerning its nuclear program.
For their part, officials in Bahrain have responded by indirectly backing a key Iranian opposition group, namely the Mojahedin-e-khalq Organization (MKO). The newly founded policy commenced in 2012 with officials encouraging legislators, noted for their anti-Iran tendency, to attend functions arranged by dissident groups. The practice amounts to a tit-for-tat, clearly demonstrating Bahrain’s ability to inflict damage on Iran. However, the very practice provides opportunity for officials to distance themselves from the legislators, if and when needed.
If there is to be any possible improvement in the relationship between Tehran and Manama, there must be a rapprochement between the two regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran.
A Snapshot of the Antagonism’s Origins
Part of the problem between Iran and Bahrain stems from opposing views each country possesses on the Arab Spring since its emergence in Tunisia in late 2010. Similar to the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has shown no enthusiasm toward the political changes sweeping across Tunisia and Egypt. And, by virtue of its membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bahrain served as party to the political solution put forward by the six-nation group for Yemen, a plan that Iran did not approve of.
In addition, Bahrain had no choice but to go along with Saudi and Qatari policy of pressing for regime change in Syria, clearly against Iran’s wishes. Bahrain’s own policy was that of maintaining normal ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, something made clear by the visit of Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa to Damascus in May 2011 and his meetings with Syrian leadership. It was suggested early on that Saudi Arabia pushed for pressure on Syria in order to get Bahrain out of the international spotlight ever since the uprising in February 2011.
Iran’s Role in Bahrain’s Uprising
It is fair to claim that Iranian officials, including Bahrain followers in Tehran, were surprised by the developments in Bahrain since February 14, 2011. In Bahrain, the date of February 14 is a celebrated one because on this date in 2002 the country’s ruler revealed a new constitution, which turned the state into a kingdom and made himself its king. As a result, opposition groups decided to boycott the parliamentary election in 2002 in order to protest what they termed as a unilateral constitution.
Hardliners in the opposition, some of whom seek regime change in Bahrain, selected the date of February 14 for its convenience, especially since it came only days after Egypt’s long-standing President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign his post after weeks of tense street protests. Although it holds historical significance for Bahrain, February 14 carries no religious significance, and could not be connected to the anniversary of the Iranian revolution.
Demands for democratic reforms in Bahrain predate the Arab Spring, especially calls for a fully empowered parliament. Other socio-political concerns center on showing no tolerance for discriminatory practices on any basis, equal employment opportunities for all, and fair distribution of wealth.
With no evidence of Iran’s involvement in instigating the events of February 14, the authors of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) concluded that Tehran was not behind the uprising. Released in November 2011, the BICI report lashed out at security forces for using excessive force in dealing with protestors, causing the unnecessary deaths of a number of Bahraini nationals.
War of Words
Iranian media has some responsibility in causing the deterioration of ties between Tehran and Manama. Although the media did not instigate Bahrain’s uprising, the ongoing protests provided extended media support to those in Iran calling for political reforms in Bahrain. Iran further strengthened its media attacks on Bahrain after the entry of Saudi troops in March 2011, highlighting the rivalry between the two regional powers.
More specifically, Iran used its media empire in Arabic, transmitted from Tehran, Beirut, and Baghdad, at the disposal of opposition groups from Bahrain, to broadcast anti-regime statements. A few examples of these channels include, Al-Alam, which runs programs in Arabic from its dual offices in Tehran and Beirut, Al-Manar TV, affiliated with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al-Etejah, of Iraq, and other channels in Farsi and English. Tehran considers assaults by the Bahraini security forces against the largely Shia protestors seeking democratic reforms as a threat to regional security.
Following the uprising, Iran continued to make clear that it did not approve of Bahrain’s handling of the Shia dominated protests. Iran’s decision to raise the issue of Bahrain during negotiations with the P5+1 in Baghdad angered authorities in Bahrain. Again, Iran further angered Bahrain by pressing for the inclusion of Bahrain during an emergency summit of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in August in Mecca.
Also in the same month, Bahrain was infuriated when news emerged of translators for official Iranian media sources purposely altering harsh comments made by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi against Syria to those of Bahrain. This a reference to a speech delivered by Morsi during the summit of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran in late August, lashing out at the Syrian regime. Clearly, the comments angered the summit’s host, Iran.
The logic behind Iran’s unequivocal support for those seeking change in Bahrain is partly based on the country’s religious connection to the Shia population. Top religious figures in Iran, notably in the Shia seminary in Qom, have pressed for media and other kinds of assistance for those seeking change in Bahrain on religious grounds. The argument goes that Shias in Bahrain face discrimination for the mere fact of being Shia, thus the Shia in Iran are obligated to extend assistance to their brethren.
Al-Alam was notable for providing extensive and often exaggerated coverage of events in Bahrain, running a daily program entitled “The Revolution in Bahrain.” At the very least, the program’s title is defamatory, and noted for hosting opposition figures with no restrictions imposed on what they could or could not say about the country’s leadership and their demands.
Combating Iran’s Media Empire
Aware of its inability to match Iran’s media empire, Bahrain has technically pulled out of Arabsat, the pan-Arab satellite communications organization, to protest against the inclusion of Al-Alam TV on the network. The move, made in May, included a request that Arabsat remove the Iranian channel from the offered package to appease Bahrain and, thereby, Saudi Arabia.
The media war between Bahrain and Iran will, however, soon occur on a level playing field when Manama becomes home to Al-Arab News Channel in December 2012. Aside from having the catchy date of 12-12-12, the timing coincides with celebrations of the national day in Bahrain. Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal has given his support to the project, further adding to the Saudi dimension of the Bahrain-Iran debacle.
Bahrain shares the blame for the barrage of attacks from the Iranian media. For years, Iranian authorities have pressed Bahraini officials to end year round negative coverage of events in Iran. Prior to being assigned as Bahrain’s Minister of State for Information Affairs, Samira Rajab was noted for supporting ferocious and repeated media attacks on Iran. Samira is a self-declared supporter of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The uprising provided Iran a golden opportunity to exact a reprisal against Bahraini authorities for tolerating hostile media attacks towards the Islamic Republic.
Endorsing the Iranian Opposition
Still, Bahrain’s most potent revenge against Iran’s media assault is its tacit support for the Iranian exile group, the MKO, a novelty since Bahrain’s independence from Britain in 1971 and the Iranian revolution in 1979. For instance, Bahraini legislator, Abdulhakim Al-Shomari, took part in the annual gathering of the MKO in Paris on June 23. The U.S. considers the MKO to be a terrorist organization.
Accompanied by other Bahraini nationals and government-supported civil society members, Al-Shomari also attended a party thrown by the National Council of Resistance of Iran
(NCRI) during the month of Ramadan in early August. Al-Shomari held talks with Maryam Rajavi, head of NCRI, and raised concerns about conditions at Camp Ashraf in Iraq, which houses MKO exiles.
It appears that Bahrain may use potential support from the Iranian exile group as a bargaining chip for any future negotiations with Iran, in order to counter Iran’s support for Bahraini opposition groups. However, Bahrain’s support for the group cannot be compared to the level of Iranian support for the Bahraini opposition as Iran has made its media empire available to these groups.
Adding to tension between the two countries, Bahrain’s government ordered the state-owned Gulf Air to cease all flights to and from Iran. The same order was applied to Gulf Air’s operations to Iraq. The two destinations are exceptionally popular with Shia visitors traveling to holy shrines in the two countries, and unsurprisingly are among the busiest on Gulf Air’s network. The move caused disruption to Gulf Air’s entire network, forcing it to close other destinations for loss of transit traffic generated from Iran and Iraq.
The Saudi Factor
The nature of relations between Bahrain and Iran tend to be partly reflective of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The rivalry between the two regional powers can be traced across numerous countries in the region, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen, not to mention Bahrain and the oil market. Only a few years ago, the two countries jockeyed for influence over a handful of issues excluding Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen.
Historically, good relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have improved ties between Tehran and Manama. During happier times when there were ties between Riyadh and Tehran, top Iranian officials would stop in Bahrain on their way to Saudi Arabia.
For instance, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a brief visit to Bahrain in 2007 while en route to Saudi Arabia for a meeting of OPEC members. Also, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani crossed the King Fahd causeway into Bahrain while touring projects in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Former President Mohammed Khatami visited Bahrain twice in 2003 while in office and in 2006 as head of an institution promoting dialogue between civilizations. For his part, Bahrain’s King Hamad paid a rare visit to Tehran in 2002, holding meetings with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former President Khatami.
Conclusion: Overcoming the Challenge
If history is any guide, the two countries have the chance of overcoming the current downturn in relations. For instance, in February 2009 while commemorating the anniversary of the revolution, former speaker of Iranian Parliament Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri repeated Iran’s historical claims of ownership over Bahrain.
As a consequence of his comments, Bahraini authorities ordered the return of a delegation visiting Iran to explore the possibility of signing a gas deal with Iran. The intended accord was meant to facilitate Bahraini imports of gas from Iran for the purpose of meeting the country’s industrial and residential demands. From Bahrain’s perspective, the deal was also intended to develop business-like ties with Iran; alternative sources of gas to Bahrain could be guaranteed from Russia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
The two capitals all but succeeded in overcoming the troubles caused by Nategh-Nouri’s comments, as evidenced by subsequent exchanges between Bahrain’s Foreign Minister and his Iranian counterpart at the time, Manouchehr Mottaki. In fact, one of the last major appearances by Mottaki, prior to losing his job while on a foreign trip, was in addressing the Manama Dialogue in December 2010, arranged by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). The meeting saw Mottaki sitting only a few chairs away from the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
As suggested above, improvements in bilateral ties between Bahrain and Iran should only be a matter of time. During the fasting of month of Ramadan in August, ahead of the OIC summit in Saudi Arabia, authorities in Bahrain revealed some abrupt decisions regarding ties with Iran. Among other example, Bahrain has returned its Ambassador to Tehran, although Iran announced it does not intend to send back its envoy to Manama for the time being. Iranian officials justified their move by citing to displeasure over how authorities in Bahrain have treated their Shia citizens. Gulf Air has also revealed plans to resume flights to both Iran and Iraq in September to the delight of Shias wishing to visit holy shrines in both countries. Finally, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister made a relatively lengthy stay in Tehran while attending NAM meeting.
*Dr. Jasim Husain Ali is a former member of the Bahraini Parliament and a member of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the country’s largest Shia political party. Dr. Husain is a columnist on the political and economic affairs of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for Gulf News. He lives in Bahrain.