Bahrain Not Interested In Mediation With Iran


Photo source: Bahrain Mirror

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In 2020, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council namely Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait started a process of de-escalation with Iran. But it all changed with the creation of Negev Summit in 2022.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, it  held five talks with Tehran through mediation with Iraq, while UAE and Kuwait both returned their ambassadors to Iran after six years.  Bahrain has also unexpectedly shown no desire for reconciliation with Iran as well. It is not even showing any hints.

Bahrain, as a nation, is marred by divisive internal politics and is facing somewhat unique challenges for diplomatic extensions. As around seventy per cent of Bahrain’s population is made up of Shia Muslims, and since Iran considers itself the leader of Shias all over the world, the population tends to support its political demands. Having said that, human rights groups have long said that there exists systematic discrimination against Shia Muslims in Bahrain by the Sunni-dominated monarchy, which lets them exclude from key government posts and security posts. The common Shia population has also accused the monarchy of discrimination in housing and recruiting foreigners into military services and bringing Sunni tribes from Asia to change the demographic nature of the nation. The immigration influx was specifically mentioned in the Al Bander Report, where the minister of cabinet affairs allegedly paid five operatives a total of 2.7 million dollars to run a secret intelligence cell to target Shias, organise sectarian trolls, make election rigging strategies and offer subsidisation for new converts from Shia to Sunni Islam.

The political grievances of Shias mainly gained prominence between 2003-2010. Since then, there has been a targeting of Shia clerics, rights activists, and peaceful dissidents through arrests and criminal charges. There also have been restrictions on their travel movement as well. The experts described a wide range of charges, such as ‘inciting hatred against the regime’ and ‘illegal gathering’ to hide a deliberate targeting of Shias in the country. 

That’s why over the past few decades, the Shia population have made several attempts for coups to challenge the Al-Khalifa regime. According to Betual Doggan Akkas, an associate fellow at Al Sharq Strategic Research, a potential de-escalation with Iran will result in internal policy issues for the Bahraini monarchy.

Manama is also fighting Iran on the economic front. Through Bahrain's financial system, Iran has carried out activities to bypass sanctions and bank transfers. Iran has made suspicious financial transactions through Al-Mustaqbal Bank, whose shares are owned by two domestic Iranian banks and were registered in Bahrain in 2004. The government of Bahrain finally liquidated this bank in December 2016 due to systematic illegal activities, including non-compliance with international sanctions, rules against money laundering, and financing of terrorism. The bank allegedly concealed at least $7 billion of transactions between 2004 and 2015, a time when many Iranian banks were barred from operations by sanctions from accessing international financial markets.

As per The New Arab, Iran’s political influence in Bahrain ranges from supporting political parties, organisations, individuals, and Shia groups who oppose the Bahraini regime. One of these people is Sheikh Isa Ahmed Qassem, the Friday prayer leader at Imam Sadeq Mosque in Diraz City, who has close relations with Iran.

Qassem is considered the spiritual leader of the Wafaq Party, Bahrain’s biggest opposition group. From the early 1990s to 2001, when the majority of Wafaq leaders were in exile, Qassem was in Qom in Iran, receiving theological instructions from Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former head of the Iranian judiciary.

The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, once described Qassem as ‘a star in the sky of Shia’ and said he is ‘proud’ of the cleric. Furthermore, it is believed that Qassem had been so close to Khamenei that he insisted on not boycotting the 2006 Iranian parliamentary elections (despite doing so in 2002). It is mainly because Khamenei advised him to participate in the political process.

According to Dr Mohammad Salami, a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, Iran's support of political opposition led to an unsuccessful coup by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain in December 1981 to oust the monarchy and replace it with a Shiite theocracy. After the coup was foiled, the government of Bahrain expelled several Iranian diplomats from Bahrain.

The third sphere to which Iran is upto is forming a proxy model in Bahrain, similar to what is going on in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been training armed groups in Bahrain and providing financial and spiritual support to them since 2011, when the military forces of Saudi Arabia and the GCC were sent to suppress the popular protests in Bahrain in the middle of the Arab Spring. These groups include Saraya al-Mukhtar, Saraya al-Ashtar, Bahrain Hezbollah, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and Saraya al-Karar. In March 2011, after the takeover of the Pearl Roundabout in Manama by the protest movement, the Bahraini officials claimed to have intercepted calls between radical members of the Bahraini opposition and IRGC personnel that allegedly discussed the sea transfer of a large weapons cache loaded on Iranian sea vessels.

In addition to internal implications, there are external factors that have a wallop for de-escalation between the two sides.

The dependence of Bahrain's foreign policy on Saudi Arabia is a pivotal external factor for hostile relations between Iran and Bahrain. Manama is subject to Riyadh's policies. It even followed Saudi Arabia’s regional diplomacy such as the blockade of Qatar in 2017 and the severing of ties with Iran in 2016. Indeed, among the GCC members, no country relies on Saudi Arabia as much as Bahrain.

In addition to that, Manama's military alliance with Tel Aviv, especially after the signing of the Abraham Accords, has increased Iran's distrust about Bahrain becoming a spying centre in its southern sea borders. If the issue escalates, it may lead to a military response by Iran. It is because Bahrain is busy buying anti-drone systems, and its security apparatus is also taking training from Israel’s security and intelligence services. Extremely digitalised and more autocratic structures have also emerged with the result.


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