Will Bahrain follow the GCC's Iran de-escalation trend?

7 min read
08 November, 2022

In the last two years, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Kuwait, have started a process of de-escalation with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has held five rounds of talks with Tehran through the mediation of Iraq, while the UAE and Kuwait both returned their ambassadors to Iran after six years.

Despite this, fellow GCC state Bahrain has shown no desire to start talks or even send signals concerning reconciliation.

Why is Manama deviating from other GCC members in its unwillingness to reconcile with Tehran, and if Iran's de-escalation process is completed with the rest of the GCC, how will Bahrain react?

Internal politics

When it comes to Iran, Bahrain faces a unique challenge that other GCC members are less likely to face. Around 70% of Bahrain's population is made up of Shia Muslims, and since Iran considers itself the leader of Shias all over the world, it tends to support their political demands.

Rights groups have long said that there exists systematic discrimination against Shia Muslims in Bahrain, who are excluded from key government posts and the security forces.

The targeting of religious clerics, rights activists, and peaceful dissidents through arrests and criminal charges by Bahraini authorities also amounts to a grave violation of human rights, the UN has said.

Over the past few decades, Bahrain's Shia population has made several attempts to challenge the Sunni Al-Khalifa regime, ranging from failed coup attempts to street demonstrations.

“Every step towards Iran requires additional care and strategy for Bahrain to keep the regime’s domestic policy running. Therefore, a potential de-escalation with Iran also comes with domestic policy concerns for the Bahraini regime,” Betul Dogan-Akkas, associate fellow at Al Sharq Strategic Research, said in an interview with The New Arab.

"When it comes to Iran, Bahrain faces a unique challenge that other GCC members are less likely to face"

In the domestic sphere, Bahrain is fighting with Iran on three fronts. The first area is economics. 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 by sanctions from accessing international financial markets.

Supporting political parties, organisations, and Shia groups who oppose the Bahraini regime is the second sphere of Iran's influence in Bahrain. 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.

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He 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 training from Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former head of the Iranian judiciary.

The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, has described Qassem as "a star in the sky of Shia" and said he is "proud" of the cleric. Indeed, Qassem is so close to Khamenei that some Bahrainis believe the main reason why the Wafaq Party did not boycott the 2006 parliamentary elections (despite doing so in 2002) was because Khamenei advised him to participate in the political process.

Iran's support of political opposition led to an unsuccessful attempt by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain in December 1981 to overthrow the monarchy and replace it with a theocracy. After the coup was foiled, the government of Bahrain expelled several Iranian diplomats from the country.

The third sphere is the formation of 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.

Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid welcomes Bahrain's Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani upon his arrival for the Negev Summit, on 27 March 2022. [Getty]
Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid welcomes Bahrain's Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani upon his arrival for the Negev Summit, on 27 March 2022. [Getty]

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, following the takeover of the Pearl Roundabout in Manama by the protest movement, the Bahraini authorities claimed to have intercepted calls between radical members of the Bahraini opposition and IRGC personnel that allegedly discussed the sea transfer of a large cache of weapons loaded on Iranian naval vessels.

“Repeated attacks by Shiite groups such as the Waad Allah Brigades or Saraya al-Mukhtar have shown that the threat to Bahraini security policy cannot come from large-scale insurgencies [such as protests in 2011]," Stefan Lukas, an analyst and consultant in Berlin and a lecturer at the German Armed Forces Command and Staff College in Hamburg, told TNA.

"Yet there are a number of indications that various Shiite groups have contacts in Iran and that Iranian clerics regularly make threats against Manama."

External implications

In addition to internal implications and endogenous threats, there are external factors that have a direct impact on de-escalation between the two sides.

The dependence of Bahrain's foreign policy on Saudi Arabia is the most important external element of hostile relations between Iran and Bahrain. Manama is subject to Riyadh's policies and follows Saudi Arabia’s line on regional events such as the blockade of Qatar in 2017 and the severing of relations with Iran in 2016. Indeed, among the GCC members, no country relies on Saudi Arabia as much as Bahrain.

"Manama's military cooperation with Tel Aviv has increased Iran's suspicion that Bahrain has become a spying centre in its southern sea borders, and if the issue escalates, it may lead to Iran's military response"

“Bahrain is bandwagoning Saudi Arabia in various regional manners and once we comment on a Bahraini policy towards Iran, it is not separated from Riyadh’s policy choices. So, not only Bahrain’s domestic or regional security concerns but also Saudi dynamics are involved in the current stage of its relations with Iran,” Dogan-Akkas said.

“In the future, the overall [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammad bin Salman policy towards Iran will be determinant in Bahrain’s strategy towards the Islamic Republic,” she added.

The relationship between Bahrain and Israel and the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords is a critical issue between the two sides. Iran considers Israel to be its most important security threat. Manama's military cooperation with Tel Aviv has increased Iran's suspicion that Bahrain has become a spying centre in its southern sea borders, and if the issue escalates, it may lead to Iran's military response.

“Bahrain has sought Israeli assistance with security and intelligence services. Israel has also provided drones to Bahrain, as well as anti-drone systems. To contain what it perceives as an Iranian threat, Israel wants to forge a military alliance with Gulf states,” Arhama Siddiqa, a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), told TNA.

The US is also concerned about the continuation of Bahrain-Iran relations. Bahrain hosts the US military’s Fifth Fleet. If Iran's proxy model succeeds in Bahrain, Washington will fear a similar experience as Iraq, where Iran's allies have targeted US bases hundreds of times.

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These conflicts led to political chaos in Iraq until the Iraqi parliament finally voted for the withdrawal of US forces, forcing Washington to change strategy to an advisory role. Washington does not want this experience to be repeated in Bahrain. 

Still, the model of internal security and proxying would be difficult to implement in Bahrain, explained Lukas.

“There is a comprehensive state apparatus that has a monopoly on power throughout the entire national territory, but extremely digitalised and autocratic structures have also emerged. For example, the royal family in Manama uses surveillance software from the Israeli technology company NSO to monitor the political and civil opposition in the country and to control it with the help of the security apparatus,” he said.

Despite these restrictions and security threats, reconciliation between Bahrain and Iran may happen in the future. In fact, the completion of the reconciliation process with the rest of the GCC countries will accelerate it, but it remains to be seen what conditions this will require and how this will impact regional dynamics. 

Dr Mohammad Salami holds a PhD in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism.

Follow him on Twitter: @moh_salami