The absurdity of the current state of Bahraini-Iranian relations played out to almost comical proportions recently when Iranian television and radio translators replaced “Syria” with “Bahrain” while translating Egyptian President Morsi’s speech at the Non-Alignment Summit held on August 30th in Tehran. The incident, which naturally aroused condemnations by the Bahraini government, is but one in a series of diplomatic rows that have come to characterize these two countries’ ties.
Several factors account for Bahrain’s tense relationship with Iran when compared to the better relations, although certainly imperfect, that Iran enjoys with other Gulf countries, namely Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Whereas Iran co-manages the Strait of Hormuz with Oman, shares important gas fields with Qatar, and boasts very considerable trade with the United Arab Emirates, it does not share strategic interests with Bahrain that would force both parties to maintain some degree of stability and restraint in their mutual dealings. To illustrate this point, economic relations are almost non-existent to the point that according to one estimate, bilateral trade in 2007 amounted to no more than $108 million, constituting less than 1% of Bahrain’s total trade.
Due to its dependency on Saudi subsidies and U.S. protection, tiny Bahrain can hardly seem to afford a foreign policy independent of Saudi Arabia and the United States unlike its wealthier Qatari and Emirati neighbours. On the nuclear issue for instance, Bahrain tends to abide by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s position, which asserts Iran’s right to the civil nuclear energy project while reaffirming the imperative need to maintain the region as a WMD-free zone. Moreover, the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet on Bahraini soil makes the island a worrisome source of strategic threat to Iran, despite Bahraini reassurances in August 2010 that it would not allow for its soil to be used in an attack on Tehran. Conversely, this renders Bahrain a potential target of Iranian retaliation in the case of Israeli or U.S. aggression in the context of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Domestically, whenever Bahrain experiences a wave of unrest, relations tend to deteriorate quickly with Iran. This is due to the fact that Iranian officials are often quick to make inflammatory remarks probably for domestic and international soft power objectives. It is also a result of deep-rooted Bahraini suspicions of Iranian malfeasance in addition to a tendency to use Iran as a scapegoat in order to avoid addressing domestic concerns.
Exporting the Revolution: Relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Post-Independence Bahrain
The question of Iran’s territorial claim over Bahrain was finally settled by the UN Security Council in 1970. A Personal Representative of the UN Secretary General concluded that “the overwhelming majority of the people of Bahrain wish to gain recognition of their identity in a fully independent and sovereign State free to decide for itself its relations with other States.” However, the issue occasionally came up from time to time after the 1979 Iranian revolution when relations were at their worst.
At the height of Iranian revolutionary zeal, a group baptized Al-Jabha Al-Islamiyya li-Tahrir al-Bahrayn (The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, or IFLB), whose headquarters was based in Tehran and who had received training and participated in Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) military operations, attempted unsuccessfully in 1981 to stage a coup d’état against the Bahraini Al-Khalifa family. The foiled Iranian-backed attempt led to a rapid deterioration in Bahraini-Iranian relations.
Despite a brief period of détente in the mid-1980s and the apparent suspension of Iranian efforts to export its revolution in order to decrease the support that GCC member states provided to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, the spectre of Iranian interference in Bahrain loomed on the horizon. Accordingly, when Bahrain was hit with a wave of domestic unrest during the 1990s, the Bahraini government was quick to accuse Iran once again of malice and of funding supposed groups such as Hezbollah-Bahrain.
Leading up to 2010: a Period of Relative Détente
Looking back, it appears that the Bahrain-Iran relationship has been able to make some modest progress in the few years leading up to 2010. Perhaps the most noteworthy event during this period is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Bahrain in 2007. The gesture followed Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s visit to the island in July of the same year in order to reassure Bahrain of Iran’s respect of its sovereignty after Hoseyn Shari’atmadari, Iranian newspaper Kayhan’s editor in chief described Bahrain as Iran’s fourteenth province.
In addition, negotiations took place in 2010 over a proposed gas deal that would have allowed Bahrain to import one million cubic feet of gas from Iran through a pipeline. The deal, which was put on hold following unrest in Bahrain early in 2011, would have potentially constituted a breakthrough in the two countries’ bilateral relationship.
Other subtle signs of relative détente can be detected during this short period of time. First of all, a leaked U.S. embassy cable highlights the considerable rate of growth in the bilateral trade relationship during that period, from $33.7 million in 2004 to $108 million in 2007. Moreover, the Bahraini government shut down a major newspaper, Akhbar Al-Khaleej, following the publication of an article highly critical of the Iranian government. In the article, the author, Sameera Rajab – a former member of the Shura council and currently Minister of State for Information Affairs – cast doubt on Ahmadinejad’s ethnic origins and described the Iranian state as being repressive.
Deep-Rooted Suspicions Continue to Cast Their Shadow
Despite these indicators of an improvement in bilateral ties, Bahrain’s Crown Prince reportedly became the first Arab leader in 2007 to openly state with regards to Iran’s nuclear program that, “While [the Iranians] don’t have the bomb yet, they are developing it, or the capability for it.”
Several U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks shed some light on the deep-rooted suspicions that the Bahraini leadership harboured vis-à-vis Iran. One cable, from November 4th, 2009 claims that in an hour-long conversation with U.S. General David Petraeus, Bahrain’s King Hamad Al-Khalifa, “argued forcefully for taking action to terminate their (Iran’s) nuclear program, by whatever means necessary.”
The leaked cables also indicate that the United States exerted pressure on the Bahraini government to oblige the island’s banks to terminate their relations with Iranian financial institutions, in conformity with U.S. sanctions on Iran. One cable highlights that, in 2007, Bahrain’s Central Bank instructed Future Bank BSC, a joint venture between the Iranian Bank Melli and Bank Saderat with the Bahraini Ahli United Bank, to halt all dealings with Iran. The cable notes that Bahrain’s Central Bank also, “effectively took control of the Board of Directors, and saw Ahli United Bank place all shares of Future Bank in a blind trust.”
Bahrain-Iran Relations Take a Hit Following the February 14 Uprising
When protests broke out on February 14th, 2011, Iranian officials were quick to voice their support for the pre-dominantly Shia uprising in the island. Bahraini activists and dissidents routinely appeared on Iranian and Hezbollah media outlets, including Al-Aalam TV, Al-Manar TV, and others. Media outlets also echoed Iranian condemnation of the entry of Saudi-led GCC troops on March 14th into Bahrain as well as warnings by Iranian lawmakers that Iran may find itself obliged to intervene unless the Bahraini government ceased its repression of the uprising.
A year later, amidst unity talks between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani exclaimed on May 14th, 2012, “We should encounter the conspiracies of Saudi and Bahraini rulers and if Bahrain is supposed to be integrated into another country, it must be Iran and not Saudi Arabia.”
In turn, the Bahraini government, as well as official and semi-official media outlets, pulled no punches in relentlessly accusing Iran and its proxies – primarily Hezbollah – of being behind the massive protest movement. They have often pointed to, for instance, an alleged visit that the now-imprisoned opposition leader Hasan Mushaima’ had paid to Hezbollah on his way from London to Bahrain on February 26th, 2011. However, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report stated that, “the Commission has not been able to investigate or independently verify these allegations of Iranian involvement in the events of February and March 2011.”
Bahrain’s King, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, replied by stating that, “the Government of Bahrain was not in a position to provide evidence of links between Iran and specific events in our country this year.” However, a U.S. Embassy cable dating from 2008 available to us through WikiLeaks states, “To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s…In post’s assessment, if the GOB [Government of Bahrain] had convincing evidence of more recent Iranian subversion, it would quickly share it with us.”
At the height of these suspicions, diplomatic tensions became so tense that Bahrain and Iran expelled one another’s diplomats in March 2011 and both countries withdrew their ambassadors. Bahraini merchants called for boycotting Iranian products and cutting whatever little commercial and trade ties the island had with Iran. Furthermore, negotiations over the new gas deal were put on hold, and Bahrain’s national carrier Gulf Air announced the suspension of flights to both Iraq and Iran, two of the most profitable routes that the struggling company used to operate.
Local Bahraini commentators and analysts highly sympathetic to the government have come to regularly articulate their view on Iranian strategic interests in Bahrain. Al-Watan Newspaper columnist Yousif Al-Binkhalil in a piece entitled “Tehran’s Strategic Interest in Manama” argued that in addition to acquiring nuclear weapons, Tehran was bent on fully exporting the Iranian revolution as well as fostering regime change in Bahrain. Al-Watan also ran an editorial entitled arguing that under the table the United States and Iran were working together to support Bahraini revolutionaries seeking to destabilize and topple the ruling establishment.
Demographic and Economic Indicators
Bahrain is characterized by the presence of a sizeable ethnically Persian population, many of whom immigrated between the 1930s and the 1960s to work in the national oil industry while others settled the island for trade. Today, ethnically Persian Bahrainis are said to constitute a professional class. Religiously, a number of Bahraini Shia students of theology received training in Iranian theological seminars in Qom, especially as it became increasingly difficult to do so in Iraq during the Saddam era.
Although it is rather difficult to obtain accurate estimates, a U.S. embassy cable leaked by WikiLeaks states that, “a very rough estimate is that 30 percent of the Shia here follow clerics who look to more senior clerics in Iran for guidance.” Bahrain’s leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, according to WikiLeaks, “has occasionally endorsed the Iranian regime’s doctrine of velayat-e faqih,” according to which the Supreme Leader of Iran, currently Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields both religious and political power. Moreover, it is estimated that thousands of Bahraini Shias annually visit holy sites in Iran on pilgrimage.
Conclusion: Room for Improvement?
The suspended gas deal, Bahrain’s (and the GCC’s) official acknowledgement of Iran’s right to develop civil nuclear energy capabilities, and previous instances of relative détente are substantiate evidence that there is much potential for improvement in Bahrain-Iran relations. Recently, Bahrain’s national carrier Gulf Air has announced its resumption of flights to Iran. Bahrain also reinstated its ambassador to Tehran, although the .
Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to pursue better relations will depend on the bigger framework of the United States’ and GCC’s ties with Iran, Iran’s commitment to respect Bahraini sovereignty, Bahrain’s ability to pursue a foreign policy beyond the confines of U.S. and Saudi dictates, and a belief among both countries’ leaderships that the benefits of improved relations outweigh those of using one another as rhetorical punching bags both domestically and internationally.