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Bahrain, the smallest Arab country, is on the frontlines of the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide. It is a diverse country, home not only to Muslims but also to an indigenous Christian and Jewish population. While the Bahraini royal family, security forces, and much of the business elite are Sunni, the majority of the population is Shi’ite. Indeed, Bahrain may have the highest proportion of Shi’ites among any Arab country, surpassing even Iraq. Political sensitivities make an exact census impossible, but what is clear is that the country’s Sunni minority monopolizes power.
With the eruption of sectarian unrest on February 14, 2011, concerns regarding Bahrain’s stability and the degree to which the Islamic Republic of Iran influenced Bahrain’s Shi’ite population shot to the forefront. Bahraini Shi’ite opposition leaders reject as sectarian slander the Bahraini government’s accusations that they are under Iran’s thumb; instead, they say they seek to reverse discrimination and address specific grievances related to employment, housing, and equality. Bahraini security officials, however, say that Iran permeates, if not directs, the protests and caution foreign diplomats not to be naïve. They warn that meaningful reform would usher in a period of Iranian domination. The reality is that there is truth to both sides.
Bahrain’s Failed Islamic Revolution
Bahraini Shi’ites bristle at the notion that they harbor dual loyalty. In 1970, as the British prepared to pull their forces back from East of Suez, the shah of Iran asserted a centuries-old claim to Bahrain, based on the fact that Iran had ruled Bahrain until the 16th century when the Portuguese seized the island. Bahraini Shi’ites correctly point out that, had they really wished to be part of Iran, they had every opportunity to seek unity during a 1970 UN-sponsored survey. Instead, they joined the overwhelming majority of Bahraini Sunnis, Christians, and Jews in choosing independence. The shah renounced Iran’s claims and, in 1971, Bahrain became independent.
Political discord marred the island nation’s first years. Bahrainis elected a parliament in 1973 without a hitch. What the emir did not expect, however, was that parliament would become a source for discontent. Ironically, at the time, the ruling family feared Sunni dissent more than Shi’ite unrest.1 Nasserism was sweeping across the Middle East, threatening to push out traditional Arab monarchies.
“Bahrain may have the highest proportion of Shi’ites among any Arab country, surpassing even Iraq.”
The parliament demanded full implementation of the constitution, something the Khalifa family felt might hamper its control. By 1975, the tension grew too great for the royal family’s tolerance, as the parliament refused to endorse measures that would have enabled arrest without charge of opposition elements. The royal family disbanded parliament and refused new elections to replace it.
The real trouble started in the years that followed, and came not from the Nasserist wave in the west but from the once-stable east. Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sought to promote his ideology well beyond Iran’s borders. Among the first countries in his sight was Bahrain.
Khomeini may have believed Bahrain susceptible to his brand of political Islam for several reasons: During his long years of exile, he taught in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, where he interacted with and, indeed, took as his students many Bahraini clerics. And political unrest started in Bahrain in 1978, around the same time Iran began its descent into chaos.
While Bahrain had been independent for less than a decade, the Khalifa family had dominated the island for centuries. With its own oil reserves depleted and British subsidies ended, Bahrain’s standard of living was poor, at least relative to its Persian Gulf neighbors. What wealth did exist flowed disproportionately to the Sunni elite. Khomeini may have figured that Shi’ites may not have sought to swap one king for another, but now that the shah was gone and an “Islamic paradise” had been implemented in his place, they might reconsider.
Khomeini was not willing to simply sit on the sidelines and wait for such a decision, however. Instead, he actively sought to export Iran’s revolution. His chief tool was the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB), a revolutionary Shi’ite group founded in 1976. It made no secret of its goal to topple the Khalifa family’s rule and to replace it with an Islamic order led by Hadi al-Modaressi, an Iraqi ayatollah who had fled Saddam Hussein and taken refuge in Bahrain, at least until his 1979 expulsion.
Evidence that the IFLB was an Iranian puppet organization is overwhelming. The group declared its fidelity to the “Universal Islamic Revolution under the leadership of Imam Khomeini.”2 Between August 9 and 11, 1980, IFLB leadership held a conference in Tehran, at the conclusion of which they issued a statement declaring, “Imam Khomeini is the leader and axis around which our oppressed peoples should rally if they truly seek freedom, since Imam Khomeini is the summit of jihad and faith and the symbol of challenge and endurance. He is the hope of all the oppressed in the world.”3
After Khomeini’s victory in Iran, the IFLB declared Modaressi to be Khomeini’s representative in Bahrain. IFLB publications talked openly about its members training with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps inside Iran.4 In short, not only was the IFLB linked with Iran, but it also took its direction from Tehran.
On December 13, 1981, three days before the 10-year anniversary of Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa taking the throne, an anniversary that Bahrain marks as its National Day, Bahraini security forces arrested 73 people-most affiliated with the IFLB-whom they accused of planning a coup to overthrow the government and impose a Khomeini-style Islamic Republic on Bahrain. For most Bahrainis, the events of 1981 are ancient history. After all, the median age of Bahrain is just 31.4 years, which means that more than half of the population-those who are now protesting-were born and came of age after the Iranian-sponsored coup attempt. Nevertheless, for the royal family, that event remains in the forefront of their minds.
While some Bahraini Shi’ites committed treason in 1981, Bahraini government implications of communal guilt are unfair. Still, the coup attempt reinforced a sense of crisis that the Bahraini government used to justify the suspension of the constitution and parliament. By the early 1990s, however, the sense of immediate crisis had dissipated. Iran remained committed to revolutionary export, but the devastation of eight years of war with Iraq followed by the death of Ayatollah Khomeini had tempered Iran’s aggression toward its neighbors.
“Graffiti calling for Hamad’s downfall is ubiquitous in Manama, reapplied as quickly as security forces can whitewash urban walls.”
It was against this backdrop that, in 1992, Bahrainis-again, many of them Sunni-petitioned the emir to restore the constitution and parliament. The emir rejected the petition but, two years later, the petitioners returned with 23,000 signatures. The exponential increase in signatories reflected the inclusion of Shi’ites, although the movement’s leadership remained both secular and cross-sectarian.5 Shi’ites joined the movement in order to protest their growing disenfranchisement.
Unemployment was overwhelmingly a Shi’ite phenomenon and, in June 1994, created a spark for growing protests that soon morphed into demands for the restoration of the parliament and constitution. Violence erupted and took a distinctly sectarian air after Bahraini authorities routed a marathon through the heart of Shi’ite villages, and protesters responded by throwing stones at immodestly dressed runners. Clashes-and an occasional bombing-continued periodically for several years. The political stalemate was broken only by the death (from natural causes) of Emir Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa in 1999.
Bahrainis long considered Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who assumed the throne upon his father’s death, to be a reformer; initially, he did not disappoint. He proposed a National Action Charter calling for the restoration of the parliament and constitutional order and guaranteeing both individual liberty and the supremacy of law over the ruler’s whim. In a 2001 referendum, 98.4 percent of Bahrainis approved the charter, ending the seven-year period of instability and sectarian strife and enabling Bahrain a fresh start.
Alas, Hamad’s actions as emir did not match his reformist rhetoric as crown prince. While he did restore parliament, he did not sacrifice power. Rather than implement the National Action Charter that he had proposed and negotiated, he declared himself “king” and took absolute power. This means he appoints both the prime minister-Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa has held that post since Bahrain’s independence-and all 40 members of the Majlis al-Shura. Bahrainis then elect a second, 40-member council of representatives.
Whereas in the United States, decennial censuses equalize electoral districts in terms of population, no such system exists in Bahrain. The kingdom gerrymanders districts to ensure Sunni dominance. The hopes Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority placed in Hamad’s good faith were not met, and the king did not address their fundamental grievances.
This set the stage for a perfect storm in 2011. Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010 and subsequent death early the next month set off a series of protests that swept through the region, ousting some of the Arab world’s most retrenched dictators, most notably Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President
Against this backdrop, Bahrainis called for a Day of Rage on February 14, 2011, a date that coincided with the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter referendum. Shi’ite Bahrainis used the occasion to protest their mistreatment and demanded a new constitution drafted jointly by Shi’ites and Sunnis, the release of Shi‘ite prisoners, and an end to torture.6
Bahraini forces, allegedly under the control of hardline Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, responded with an iron fist, killing one protester. As often happens across the region, his funeral catalyzed further protests that in turn led to additional casualties. On February 17, 2011, a police operation reportedly wounded 95 protesters.7 A subsequent release of political prisoners did not lessen tensions, as new grievances mounted more quickly than the government resolved past ones.
What began as a peaceful protest morphed into a movement that shook the foundations of Bahraini stability and ultimately led, after a month, to a heavy-handed police and military intervention by a predominantly Saudi-manned Gulf Cooperation Council force. Within a month, more than 30 Bahraini protesters died.8
This Peninsula Shield deployment may have restored a modicum of order, but it did not restore calm. Violence and midnight protests continued to rock the island nation for months. To deny protesters a rallying point, Bahraini authorities destroyed downtown Manama’s Pearl Monument, the Bahraini equivalent of the Washington Monument and the site of the initial protests. To extract an economic price for Bahraini repression and to keep their movement in the headlines, protesters subsequently targeted international forums hosted by Bahrain. Formula 1, for example, cancelled the Bahrain Grand Prix in March 2011, and protests and tear gas marked subsequent Grand Prixes.
“Khomeini hoped to remodel Shi’ite theology to conform to his own minority views regarding clerical rule.”In the wake of the Pearl Monument uprising, King Hamad called for an inquiry. He appointed Egyptian American legal scholar Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni to head the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the events of February and March 2011.9 The final report of the Bassiouni Commission, as it became popularly known, put to rest doubts about its independence, finding that Bahraini security forces used excessive force and torture and found no evidence to support the government’s allegation that Iran was behind the protests.10 Many opposition activists, however, said the report did not go far enough because it failed to directly blame, let alone hold accountable, senior officials.11
While King Hamad quickly pledged reforms to expand the power and independence of parliament, many of the commission’s recommendations have yet to be implemented.12 This may be due in part to factional divisions within the royal family. Despite his seeming engagement in the weeks after the Pearl Monument uprising and his role in creating the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, foreign diplomats describe the king as more interested in leisure and the perks of power than the hard work of governance. He cedes many decisions to his uncle, the hardline prime minister. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad has urged greater reforms, but does not have the power to implement them.
Regardless, both sides have retrenched in their positions. The government seems more interested in defeating the opposition than in addressing any legitimate grievances it might have. In July 2013, for example, Bahraini lawmakers ramped up new “counterterrorism laws” that empower the government to strip Bahraini protesters of their citizenship.13 The opposition is not blameless. While many tell Western journalists and diplomats that they are committed to peaceful reform and a constitutional monarchy, many within the opposistion privately suggest what they will not say publicly: that they seek to end the monarchy and to oust Americans from the island.14
Indeed, graffiti calling for Hamad’s downfall is ubiquitous in Manama, reapplied as quickly as security forces can whitewash urban walls. Nor are opposition forces likely to put their faith in the future. Many point out that they had trusted Hamad’s pronouncements when he was crown prince, only to see him repeatedly fail to implement reforms. They are therefore unwilling to put stock in Crown Prince Salman’s promises, and see the factional discord that American diplomats tend to emphasize as an elaborate case of good cop, bad cop, designed to fool credulous foreigners.
A Hidden Iranian Hand?
Despite the Bassiouni Commission’s findings, however, Bahraini authorities continue to blame the most recent violence on Iran. Are they right? Perhaps. Just because Iranian officials did not cause the initial unrest does not mean that they have not sought to exploit it. Senior Iranian officials continue to claim Iranian suzerainty over Bahrain.
In 2007, for example, Hossein Shariatmadari, Ali Khamenei’s appointee to edit the hardline state daily Kayhan, labeled Bahrain as Iran’s historical 14th province.15 On February 3, 2012, Khamenei used his Friday prayer sermon to castigate the Bahraini monarchy, even as he declined responsibility for the uprising.16 That said, even if Khamenei’s denials are taken at face value-a dangerous prospect given the numerous mistruths in which Khamenei and his regime have been caught-Iranian soft power is significant.17
Iranian media influence among Bahraini Shi’ites is extensive. Taxi drivers, businessmen, students, and political activists all say they get their news from Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam service or, when that is jammed, from Voice of Iran. Iran’s Press TV and Sahar are also popular. That such outlets have a wide audience in Bahrain does not necessarily correlate with support, however. Rather, through an extensive network of local Shi’ite stringers wielding cell phones and cameras, the Arabic-language Iranian channels simply provide more extensive coverage of Bahraini political and religious news than do the heavily censored Bahraini state press or Western Arabic-language services.
Iran’s attempts to influence public opinion are not simply passive. In Manama’s religious books stores, one can buy posters not only of Isa Qassim-the leading Bahraini cleric and spiritual mentor of al-Wifaq, the main Shi’ite opposition group-but also of Khamenei, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, and Imad Mughniyeh, mastermind of the 2003 attack on the Marine Barracks in Beirut and, two years later, of the hijacking of TWA 847. And Hezbollah’s al-Manar satellite station and media company has produced CDs with mainstream Shi’ite opposition leader Ali Samad’s speeches set to religious music.
Iran may also retain disproportionate influence on Bahrain’s Shi’ite religious hierarchy. In the early 1980s, Iranian authorities established the al-Athar Theological Seminary in Qom to focus on educating Bahraini theological students; Iran’s interest in Bahraini students was not altruistic. Until that point, most Bahraini religious scholars had studied in Najaf. Khomeini, however, hoped to remodel Shi’ite theology to conform to his own minority views regarding clerical rule.
Qassim embodies this pattern: he spent several years studying in Najaf in the 1960s but then, in 1991, moved to Qom to complete his studies and become an ayatollah.18 He was not alone. Because of Iraqi President Saddam’s repression of Iraqi Shi’ites and his regime’s tight control over Najaf and Karbala, generations of Bahraini religious students, from the 1970s until Saddam’s 2003 fall, had little choice but to study in Qom. Just because Iranian authorities sought to impose Khomeini’s vision there does not mean all students accepted his word. Nevertheless, over years of residence and study, many would absorb Iranian influence, even if unconsciously.
Regardless of where Bahraini clerics study, the Shi’ite landscape in Bahrain is complex. As elsewhere, most Bahraini Shi’ites look toward Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as their source of religious guidance; Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is increasingly popular, though, and the office of the late ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who was perhaps the closest thing to a spiritual leader that Lebanese Hezbollah had, remains active in Bahrain. While Fadlallah died in 2010 and, theoretically, Shi’ites should transfer their allegiance to a living source of emulation, Fadlallah’s office still collects religious taxes, perhaps as a proxy for other groups.
Money also drives rebellions and fuels revolutions. According to Iranian diplomats who engage Westerners, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders make no secret that they see export of the revolution as a mili-tary phenomenon and not a matter for soft power.19 Opposition can be expensive, if only in subsidizing and feeding those unemployed because of the unrest or the family members of those killed.
While some Bahraini opposition activists acknowledge receiving aid from the offices of ayatollahs based in Iraq and perhaps in Iran, Bahraini government officials suggest that Bahrain’s role as a center of international finance enables Iranian authorities to fund the opposition. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps maintains a multibillion-dollar network of civilian front companies, some of which might have multimillion-dollar accounts in Bahraini banks.
If Bahraini figures can draw on the interest from such accounts, the accounts could essentially serve as endowments for revolution. This puts Bahraini government officials between a rock and a hard place: to crack down on these accounts could precipitate a run on Bahraini banks and worsen the financial crisis that already afflicts the island.
Even if Western officials-and the Bassiouni Commission-concluded that the initial Bahraini uprising did not bear Iranian fingerprints, it would be dangerous to assume that Iranian authorities will permanently refrain from interference. On December 30, 2013, Bahraini authorities announced that they had intercepted a ship carrying Iranian explosives and weaponry apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition, while a simultaneous raid uncovered an illegal weapons depot along the Budaiya highway, which connects many of the Shi’ite villages to Manama.20
The Iranian government, for its part, rejected Bahraini accusations.21 Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for African and Arab affairs, dismissed the Bahraini charges and said that Bahrain had no one to blame but itself for its domestic woes. Nevertheless, as the Iranian economy improves against the backdrop of sanctions relief and renewed international investment, Iranian authorities will have greater cash at their disposal with which to foment unrest and sponsor revolution, a central ideological pillar of the Iranian regime.22
Bahrain’s unrest has deep roots, and Bahraini Shi’ites have legitimate grievances that have nothing to do with Iran. The Bahraini government’s inability or unwillingness to seriously address the problems facing its Shi’ite community creates fertile ground not only for legitimate protest, but also for those who seek to eliminate Bahrain’s monarchy or subordinate Bahraini sovereignty to Iran.
King Hamad and Prime Minister Khalifa reject substantive reform in the belief that Saudi Arabia would never allow the opposition to triumph. Meanwhile, they seek to change Bahrain’s sectarian demography by offering citizenship to Pakistani, Yemeni, Jordanian, and Iraqi Sunnis in exchange for significant investment or service in Bahrain’s sectarian security forces. Such a strategy is not only as corrosive to Bahrain’s identity as Iranian suzerainty would be, but it also condemns Bahrain to perpetual unrest, as dispossessing more than two-thirds of its population is not a formula for economic success or security.
That said, even if the current unrest does not derive from Iranian malfeasance, Bahraini authorities and Western diplomats would be foolish to assume that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps does not have designs on the island as it did in 1981. Indeed, a generational pattern may be at play.
While young Bahraini Shi’ites may genuinely believe they are fighting for basic civil rights, their leaders from the 1981 generation may simply be withholding their true goals as they channel younger protesters into a conflict that those leaders might use to overthrow the monarchy. Here, the fact that even legal Shi’ite political parties such as al-Wifaq cannot identify any issues on which they disagree with Ayatollah Isa Qassim should be a warning sign for those inclined to believe the opposition’s democratic rhetoric.
Violence may no longer be occurring nightly, but neither the Bahraini government nor its Western allies should confuse quiet with calm. Until Bahraini Shi’ites see opportunity and equality under the law, Bahrain will remain a tinderbox. At the same time, it behooves the Bahraini opposition to be especially careful should Iran seek to open a new chapter in Bahraini unrest, for any attempt by Iran to co-opt the movement will delegitimize the Bahraini opposition and their struggle for reform, for decades to come.
1. Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 125.
2. Hasan Tariq Alhasan, “The Role of Iran in the Failed Coup of 1981: The IFLB in Bahrain,” Middle East Journal 65, no. 3 (Autumn 2011): 603-17.
4. Alhasan, “The Role of Iran in the Failed Coup of 1981,” 603-17.
5. Fuller and Francke, The Arab Shi’a, 127.
6. Frederick Richter, “Protester Killed in Bahrain ‘Day of Rage’-Witnesses,” Reuters, February 14, 2011, http://uk .reuters.com/article/2011/02/14/uk-bahrain-protests-idUKTRE71D1G520110214.
7. “Bahrain Army Clamps Down after Bloody End to Protests,” Agence France Presse, February 17, 2011, www.deccanherald.com/content/138453/content/213868/archives.php.
8. “Bahrain Grand Prix Cut from 2011 F1 Calendar,” BBC Sports, June 15, 2001, www.bbc.com/sport/0/formula1 /13718417.
9. “HM King Hamad Sets Up Royal Independent Investigation Commission,” Bahrain News Agency, June 29, 2011, http://bna.bh/portal/en/news/462963.
10. Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni et al., Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (Manama, Bahrain: Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, December 10, 2011), www.bici.org.bh/BICIreportEN.pdf.
11. Nada Bakri, “Torture Used on Protesters in Bahrain, Report Says,” New York Times, November 23, 2011.
12. “Bahrain King Pledges Reforms,” The National (Abu Dhabi), January 16, 2012, www.thenational.ae/news/world /middle-east/bahrain-king-pledges-reforms.
13. Schams Elwazer, “Bahrain Enacts Stiff Laws against ‘Terrorism’ Before Opposition Protests,” CNN, July 29, 2013, www.cnn.com/2013/07/29/world/meast/bahrain-protests/.
14. See, for example, “Qassem al-Hashimi: Bahrain Khat-i Muqaddam Amrika Ast” [Qassem al-Hashemi: Bahrain is America's Front Line], Fars News (Tehran), September 8, 2011, www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13900616000730.
15. “Ahvaz-i Kucheh-i Baghi” [Street Garden Song], Kayhan (Tehran), July 9, 2007.
16. Ali Khamenei, “Khutbeh-ha-yi namaz-i juma’he Tehran” [Tehran Friday Prayer Sermon], Khameinei.ir, February 3, 2012, http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id =18923.
17. For examples of previous Iranian lies, see Michael Rubin, “Can Iran Be Trusted?” AEI Middle Eastern Outlook (September 2006), www.aei.org/article/foreign-and-defense-policy/regional/middle-east-and-north-africa/can-iran-be-trusted/.
18. Ali Alfoneh, “Between Reform and Revolution: Sheikh Qassim, the Bahraini Shi’a, and Iran,” AEI Middle East Outlook (July 2012), www.aei.org/outlook/foreign-and-defense-policy /regional/middle-east-and-north-africa/between-reform-and-revolution-sheikh-qassim-the-bahraini-shia-and-iran/.
19. “Jamayeh-i Avari Imza ‘Alebeh Khatami” [Gathering Signatures against Khatami], E’temad (Tehran), May 7, 2008; and “Iran’s Forces Are Models of Resistance,” Press TV (Tehran), May 22, 2008.
20. Sandeep Singh Grewal, “Major Arms Cache Seized,” Gulf Daily News (Manama), December 31, 2013, www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=367813.
21. “Hossein Amir Abdollahian: Ada’ye Moqamat-e Bahrayni dar Mavarad Kosht-e Irani Kamalan Kazeb Ast / Bahrayniha Farafkoni Mikonand” [Hossein Amir Abdollahian: Bahraini Authorities' Claims about Iranian Ship Are Complete Lies; Bahrainis Are Blaming Others], Namehnews.ir (Tehran), December 31, 2013, http://namehnews.ir/News/Item /97059/2/97059.html.
22. Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, article 3, www.iranonline.com/iran/iran-info/government/constitution-1.html; and Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, article 154, www.iranonline.com/iran/iran-info/government /constitution-10.html.
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