No regional power – including Iran – has escaped the charge of hypocrisy during the Arab uprisings. There are many examples of countries supporting protest movements selectively by defending their authoritarian allies in one place and pushing for the overthrow of equally authoritarian foes in another. In Iran’s case, the initial euphoria of watching American clients fall has given way to dread as ally Bashar al-Assad’s regime crumbles in Syria. Iran’s culpability in the Syrian crackdown has laid bare its hypocrisy in supporting democratic movements elsewhere, most notably in Bahrain.
Beyond this selective support for the Arab uprisings, we can find Iran’s hypocrisy over democracy in Bahrain itself. Iran faces a simple choice. If it wants to score rhetorical points in its regional struggle against Saudi Arabia and the United States, then it should continue to take a high public diplomacy profile. But, if Iran truly cares about democracy in Bahrain, it should strive to ameliorate fears of Iranian conspiracies that have driven Bahraini Sunnis into the anti-reform camp by dampening its public rhetoric. So far, it appears Iran has chosen the former path of scoring rhetorical points at the expense of truly supporting Bahraini democracy.
Fears of an Iranian Takeover
To understand this choice, we must first clearly understand what Iran has and has not done in Bahrain. The Bahraini government and its supporters claim Iran is orchestrating a plot to overthrow the Al Khalifa monarchy in favor of an Iranian-styled theocratic regime. For example, the head of the Bahraini Defense Force, Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmed, dismissed any news organization that reported negatively about the situation in Bahrain as “trumpets of Iran.” To be sure, there are likely some fringe elements in Bahrain who do seek to establish such a theocracy. Yet it is a step too far to claim the mainstream opposition seeks, as Sunni columnist Faisal al-Sheikh claims, to “strip [Bahrain] of its Arab identity and make it part of the [Iranian] Supreme Leader’s paradise.”
For many Bahraini Sunnis, Iran’s checkered history with Bahrain lends all the necessary credibility to current claims of further meddling. This past April, I took a tour of Bahraini Shia villages with a middle-aged Sunni named Ibrahim. At every sign of anti-government protest – whether graffiti calling for the death of Al Khalifa or scorch marks from Molotov cocktails – he stopped the car, insisted I take a picture, and ranted angrily about the destruction “the Shia” are bringing upon his country. For Ibrahim, “the Shia” were not just Bahrainis of another creed, but an organized and dangerous network of radicals stretching from Lebanon to the Gulf under the command of the Iranian Supreme Leader intent on the overthrow of Sunni regimes. This fear, despite the lack of serious evidence, permeates across Sunni communities in Bahrain, the rest of the Gulf, and beyond.
The Iranian Position on Bahrain – Plenty of Rhetorical Blustering
The Bahraini government has yet to provide any clear evidence that Iran has actively supported a recent coup attempt. The authoritative Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, whose findings were accepted in full by the Bahraini government, concluded that the evidence “does not establish a discernible link” between the uprising in Bahrain and the Iranian government.
Importantly, this finding does not imply Iran has ignored the Bahraini uprising all together. Even without actively meddling, Iran has taken a strong public diplomacy stance in support of the Bahraini opposition and against the Al Khalifa regime. On March 21, 2011, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei affirmed the “victory of the people of Bahrain was inevitable” and that the Iranian regime is “predicated on defending the people and their rights against all dictatorial and egotistical rulers without distinguishing between Sunnis and Shia.”
Earlier that month, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati of the Guardian Council took an even more militant tone, urging his Bahraini “brothers and sisters [to] resist against the enemy until you die or win.” Beyond official statements, the Iranian press has provided a much needed forum for the Bahraini opposition in both Arabic and English as well as an important propaganda mouthpiece for the Iranian regime. As everyone from the U.S. government to the Bahraini opposition has warned, the longer the crisis drags on in Bahrain, the more likely Iran will decide to move beyond words in their support of more radical elements of the Bahraini opposition.
Cultivating Fears of Iranian Meddling
Even this tame Iranian role has struck deep chords of fear within the hearts of many Bahraini Sunnis. This fear is not only the product of government propaganda; it builds upon centuries of history when Iran did in fact meddle in Bahraini affairs. Bahrain was a part of the Persian Empire intermittently since the 6th century BC and was most recently administered by the Safavid Empire. The Al Khalifa royal family managed to wrest control of Bahrain away from the Persians in the 18th century, relying heavily on British support.
The Shah of Iran only gave up Iran’s historical claims on Bahrain in 1970 shortly after the UN Security Council recognized the desire of the “overwhelming majority” of Bahrainis for an independent state. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the new Islamic government in Tehran began to urge the overthrow of the newly founded Bahraini state, with some officials once again referring to Bahrain as the 14th province of Iran.
This meddling reached a crescendo in 1981 with a failed coup attempt that received organizational assistance from the Iranians. According to the International Crisis Group, the 1981 coup attempt constitutes the last clear example of Iran providing “real organizational assistance” to export the Iranian revolution to Bahrain. Since 1981, the Bahraini government has frequently claimed it has uncovered Iranian-backed coup conspiracies. Yet the government has cried wolf so many times, it is hard to decipher which threats are credible and which are manufactured.
This paranoia of Shia plots has only grown in recent years, especially in the wake of the 2003 Iraq War in which many Sunnis blamed the United States for needlessly delivering Iraq to the Iranians. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Sunni Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Mahmood expressed the Bahraini Sunni fear of a repeat of the “Iraq Scenario” in which an opposition tied to Shia religious sources comes to control the state apparatus.
The Impact on Government Reforms
This fear of a Shia takeover, regardless of its shaky foundations, complicates finding a political solution that would open the path to reform. Sunnis who would otherwise support political reform defend the government out of their fear of the opposition. As Khalil al-Marzooq, an official of the opposition party Wefaq, explained in an interview, the government has cultivated this fear of Iran since 1979 by framing national demands for democracy as sectarian demands instead.
In fact, as Justin Gengler observes, this fear of Iranian meddling has struck such a deep chord within some Sunni groups they have undergone an unprecedented mobilization against both the traditional opposition and the government, which they believe has failed to crack down hard enough. With a population divided, the Bahraini government can better deflect demands for reform.
Admittedly, the Bahraini opposition has failed to effectively address these fears. Many of the religious leaders closely associated with the opposition studied in Iranian seminaries, including the most influential Shia cleric in Bahrain, Ayatollah Isa Qasim. While significantly rarer today, opposition rallies historically featured flags and images of regional Shia parties and leaders, including Hezbollah and Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Speakers at such rallies – especially when commemorating Shia holidays – also lambasted the Al Khalifa regime in theological terms, drawing comparisons with the hated Yazid, the Sunni ruler the Shia tradition holds responsible for the martyrdom of Hussein.
Today, with Bahraini and Arab media generally closed to dissident voices, opposition leaders feel compelled to appear on Iranian media outlets to get their message out. Opposition leaders have also occasionally consorted with foreign figures linked closely to Iran, including Ahmed Chalabi and Abdul Hamid Dashti. Such circumstantial evidence of Iran’s direct support to the opposition amounts to little for most fair-minded observers, but for Sunni Bahrainis closely attuned to Iran’s historical meddling, the evidence speaks for itself.
Supporting Democracy in Bahrain
If Iran truly cares about democracy in Bahrain, it must work to ameliorate Sunni fears of a Shia conspiracy. To do so, Iran must recognize that any public statements on Bahrain – even if promulgated with good intentions – only stoke the fire in Bahrain. The Iranian government should instead tone down its rhetoric and minimize its public diplomacy profile. Though unlikely, even an oblique acknowledgement of Iran’s support for the 1981 coup attempt could help Iran reaffirm its current respect for Bahraini sovereignty.
Along these lines, any reference to Bahrain as a 14th province of Iran must be categorically and emphatically repudiated at the highest levels. Finally, instead of relying on unilateral statements, the Iranians should emphasize multilateral forums like the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council to push a democratic agenda in Bahrain.
Ultimately, Iran’s democratic rhetoric on Bahrain will always be suspect so long as it represses democracy elsewhere in the region, not only in Syria but also within Iran itself. Therein lies the problem. Even if Iran truly desires democracy for Bahrain, it cares more about protecting Assad in Syria and, fundamentally, about securing its regime in Tehran. To protect these interests, Tehran has repressed the legitimate demands of the Syrian and Iranian peoples. It has stoked regional tensions for the sake of its nuclear program. It has wielded Bahrain as a rhetorical weapon against the Saudis and Americans.
All of these actions provide fodder for the unfounded fear that the Bahraini opposition is a bunch of covert Iranian agents. In this way, Iran’s hypocrisy toward democracy in Bahrain is revealed. Iran would rather shout from the rooftops about its support for Bahraini democracy than do precisely the thing that would help Bahrainis the most: butting out.
*Jason Stern recently received his M.A. in Middle East Studies from George Washington University. His thesis focused on the chances for political reconciliation in Bahrain. He tweets under the handle @IbnLarry.
 Translation by Reza Akbari