Iran Stirs Up More Trouble in the Gulf

Qassem Soleimani. Wikimedia Commons/Shahab-o-din Vajedi

Tehran’s threats against Bahrain are the latest in a strategy to expand its influence.

Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ external operations wing the Quds Force, issued a scathing condemnation June 20 against Bahrain’s revocation of the citizenship of a top Shia cleric. Soleimani proclaimed Sheikh Isa Qassim to be Tehran’s “red line,” and warned that any harm coming to him would spark an “armed intifada,” and “a fire in Bahrain and across the region.”

Bahrain, a small island monarchy in the Persian Gulf, is a strategic nation to Washington, hosting the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet—responsible for the Gulf and surrounding areas. It is also, however, strategic to Tehran. The population is 70 percent Shia, but ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa clan. Bahrain has a decades-long history of discriminating against the Shia majority, and the ruling elite tends to treat Shiites’ demands for greater freedoms as evidence that they are Iranian fifth columns. Iranian officials and commanders have not helped that perception, as they often describe the country as the Islamic Republic’s rightful “fourteenth province.”

The Arab Spring reached the kingdom in early 2011, and the Gulf Cooperation Council—led by Saudi Arabia—promptly intervened to safeguard their fellow Sunni monarchy. Reconciliation talks since then between the government and opposition have broken down several times, and intermittent clashes have persisted.

The surge in alleged IRGC-linked plots in Bahrain and the Arabian Peninsula has alarmed the island nation’s authorities. Since 2011, Bahraini security forces have intercepted large quantities of advanced weapons shipments, including armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators, bound for radical revolutionary groups like the February 14 Youth Coalition and Saraya al-Mukhtar.

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Bahraini authorities have made several such discoveries since last summer’s Iran nuclear accord, including a bomb factory and a cache of 1.5 tons of high-powered C4 explosives in October 2015. The episode led Bahrain to recall its ambassador from Tehran and expel the Iranian ambassador from its soil. Manama has announced that it arrested at least sixty Bahrainis linked to the IRGC and Hezbollah since July of last year, and, last week, charged eighteen and revoked the citizenship of five others belonging to Saraya al-Mukhtar. Similar plots and shipments have been interdicted in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

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Iran has redoubled its arm shipments to Bahrain and the Arabian Peninsula in quantity and quality since the outbreak of civil war in Syria. This is no coincidence: Soleimani wants to open a front there to pressure the Saudis against supporting antigovernment rebels in Syria. The letter issued by Soleimani, who is in charge of the Syria portfolio, reflects this strategy.

Prior to revoking Qassim’s citizenship, Bahraini authorities had been reputedly investigating a bank account in his name holding nearly $10 million. In announcing the revocation, they said he has played a key role in creating an “extremist” sectarian atmosphere and dividing society. Bahraini officials have on a number of occasions revoked the citizenship of individuals prior to expelling them. The latest decision, however, comes amid a wider crackdown on all Shia opposition.