Sectarian tension re-erupted in Bahrain in February 2011, after a near decade lull. While many journalists depicted the “Pearl Uprising” as yet another chapter in the Arab Spring, the roots of discontent in Bahrain went deeper. The uprising occurred not only against the backdrop of similar protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but also on the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter, a pact which was put to a popular referendum, led to the restoration of parliament, and ended a spate of sectarian unrest which had begun in 1994.
The Shi‘ites in Bahrain have real grievances. They face discrimination in almost every sector: economic, political, and security. Ninety-five percent of Bahrain’s unemployed are Shi’ite, and the state prevents Shi‘ites from purchasing land or living in certain portions of the island.
With the outbreak of violence, the Bahraini government exacerbated the situation. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad may be inclined toward reform, but his father, King Hamad (who as crown prince had also claimed to be a reformer), has shown himself more interested in leisure than state. Many decisions rest with Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been prime minister for more than 42 years (the longest serving prime minister in the world). A staunch hardliner, Prime Minister Khalifa refuses political reform and has instead been more inclined to crackdown, using Bahraini police enhanced with Sunni immigrants recruited to crush local dissent, as well as Saudi security forces. He and, more broadly, the Bahraini government have preferred to cast blame for unrest on Iran, and suggest that Bahraini Shi’ite leaders have effectively been co-opted by Iran and, more broadly, the Islamic Republic of Iran is behind the violence and unrest in Bahrain.
While Bahraini Shi‘ites currently listen to Iranian media (because it covers Bahraini political events and the unrest more completely than the Bahraini media) and many Bahraini clerics studied in the Iranian city of Qom, Bahraini Shi’ites take umbrage at the accusation that they are acting on Iran’s behest: after all, in 1970 the United Nations sponsored a referendum on the future of Bahrain, whether it should be independent or renew its historical ties to Iran, and both Bahraini Sunnis and their Shi‘ite co-nationalists voted overwhelmingly to reject Iranian suzerainty and support Bahraini independence.
Consistently lacking in the Bahraini government’s accusations against Iran has been any proof directly linking the Islamic Republic to the decision making of the Bahraini opposition or the violence in which some segments of the Bahraini opposition engage (generally manifested with Molotov cocktails against the water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets of the security forces). Privately, Bahraini officials will say that much of the financing for the Bahraini opposition comes from the interest of Iranian accounts sitting in Bahraini banks, but until now Bahraini officials have not been able to provide proof of direct Iranian complicity in its domestic unrest.
If the Bahraini seizure of arms and explosives did originate in Iran, then it portends a new chapter in the Bahraini unrest. The opposition has lost momentum in recent months, as international observers reconsider the legacy of Arab Spring transitions and as Bahraini authorities slowly imprison opposition leaders. While the Iranian Foreign Ministry might deny responsibility for the seizure of weaponry apparently destined for Bahrain, it avoids the question about where such weaponry did originate. Bahrain has better controls than almost any other country in the Middle East simply because, as an island, it is easier to control its borders. Explosives and their precursors are difficult to import into Bahrain under any circumstances as Bahraini patrol boats patrol the coastal area. What smuggling does occur is small scale and comes through normal dhow traffic. Security would easily intercept any dhow landing outside an established port, and it would be difficult to smuggle tons of weaponry through a normal berthing.
While the Bahraini government lacks credibility in many diplomatic circles simply because it has too often “cried wolf,” the discovery of these weapons apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition should raise real concerns both inside Bahrain and in the international community. Even if the Iranian Foreign Ministry professes innocence, it has no control over the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has been resurgent throughout the region. If the IRGC is shipping weapons to some elements of the Bahraini opposition, then it suggests that it is willing to take the Bahraini conflict to a new level, even at the risk of a proxy war with Saudi Arabia. At the same time, more direct Iranian involvement can hurt the Bahraini opposition, by tarring it in international eyes in a way that so far it has largely avoided.