Is Iran behind the Bahrain Spring?

Article Highlights

  • Khamenei’s recent discussion of Bahrain in a sermon indicates that events in Bahrain hold special importance to #Iran.

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  • Almost every Bahraini imam under the age of 50 therefore was schooled in the Islamic Republic of #Iran.

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  • Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei’s actions have foreshadowed a willingness to escalate conflict in Bahrain

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Editor's Note: FMSO’s Operational Environment Watch provides translated selections and analysis from a diverse range of foreign articles and other media that analysts and expert contributors believe will give military and security experts an added dimension to their critical thinking about the Operational Environment.

Source: Khamenei, Ali, “Khutbeh-hayi namaz-i juma’he Tehran” (Tehran Friday Prayer Sermon), 3 February 2012.

Michael Rubin: Upon the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led Friday prayers at Tehran University. His sermon would carry the weight of an American State of the Union address. With time, Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei designated a substitute prayer leader from amongst the regime hierarchy. The Supreme Leader would appear only on special occasions and when a sermon would carry above-normal weight. Khamenei’s recent discussion of Bahrain in a sermon marking the Islamic Revolution’s anniversary indicates that events in Bahrain hold special importance for the Iranian regime.

Iran’s stance toward Bahrain has grown aggressive in recent years. In 2007, Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s appointee to edit the hardline state daily Kayhan, revived claims to Bahrain, which it labeled Iran’s historical 14th province. While the ousted Shah had once claimed sovereignty over Bahrain, he accepted the results of an UN-supervised plebiscite in which Bahrainis sought independence rather than unity with Iran.

Bahrain’s ruling family is Sunni, although more than 70 percent of its population is Shi‘ite. Sectarian tension is high, and grievances are legitimate: The Sunni elite have long relegated Bahraini Shi‘ites to second-class status, banning residency in certain portions of the island and preventing most employment in security services and the military.

That Bahraini Shi‘ite grievances are legitimate does not exculpate Iran. The Islamic Republic has a long history of seeking to subvert the Khalifa dynasty. In 1981, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) sponsored a coup attempt in Bahrain. The IFLB’s publications make little secret of its goal to “Universal Islamic Revolution under the leadership of Imam Khomeini.”

When it came to influencing Bahraini Shi‘ites, Khomeini found an unintended ally in Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Because Saddam’s sectarian policies discouraged potential Bahraini clerics from study in the Shi‘ite holy city of Najaf, many traveled instead to Qom, where they became susceptible to indoctrination by followers of Khomeini. Almost every Bahraini imam under the age of 50 therefore was schooled in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Opposition leaders show fealty to local ayatollah Isa Qasim and acknowledge his influence in politics. As in Iran, among the opposition, there is no clear division between mosque and state.

While younger Bahraini Shi‘ites grew up in a Western-oriented society and seek Western freedoms, the older generation of Bahraini Shi‘ite activists quietly leans more toward Khomeini’s vision. Qassem al-Hashemi, a prominent member of the Society for Supporting Bahraini People, for example has stated in meetings in Washington with Arabic and English-speaking Shi‘ite Bahrainis that the opposition seeks to preserve Bahrain’s traditionally strong relationship with the United States to include preservation of the U.S. Fifth Fleet presence in the island nation. However, in the Iranian press, he has stated the opposite. “Bahrain is America's front line,” he told Khamenei, “The Americans will not easily allow removal of their stooges in the region unless the conditions dictate otherwise. Where can they find a ruler who…will allow them to establish military bases? Allow them to do what they please in his country? To defend the Zionists?”

There is no evidence that Iranian government officials directly support the Bahraini opposition with weaponry; the Bahraini opposition has largely embraced non-violence. However, when pressed, Shi‘ite leaders acknowledge they receive money through the offices of several ayatollahs. While most Bahraini Shi‘ite have traditionally looked toward Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for religious guidance, Khamenei’s office is increasingly active on the island, while the representative of the Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a chief religious patron for Lebanese Hezbollah, actively collects and distributes money in the Bahraini community despite Fadlallah’s death in 2010. Solicitation of money from Grand Ayatollahs based in Iraq belies the claim that the Bahraini uprising is completely indigenous in nature. A February 2012 survey of religious bookstores in Manama suggests that Khamenei dominates the available literature and audiotapes of living, non-Bahraini clergy.

Khamenei parses the truth when he denies direct Iranian involvement today, for his clerical office remains engaged in Bahrain even if he does not activate more formal agencies of state. He and his proxies are hijacking an indigenous uprising rather than sponsoring it in its entirety, aided by the Bahraini Kingdom’s slow pace of reform. Ultimately, however, Khamenei’s focus on Bahrain at such a prominent forum, his belief that the United States is weak and on the defensive, and Iran’s recognition of Bahrain’s importance for the American regional security foreshadows an Iranian willingness to escalate conflict in Bahrain.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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