The shadow of a woman is cast on a wall of Al-Fateh Grand Mosque as she arrives holding a Bahraini flag at a pro-government rally in Manama February 21, 2012. (REUTERS)

By Track Perisa

August 15, 2019

For centuries Iran has been seen as a nation that has a desire to be a regional power, however, since the inception of Iran’s Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979, Iran’s foreign policy has heavily focused on regional supremacy to sustain its revolutionary regime.

The theocratic regime perceives the Arab Gulf countries a key for projecting its power and at the same time, potential threats to its existence.  Consequently, influencing policies and interfering in regional countries’ affairs through alliances with states or non-state actors within these countries is imperative for the regime to guarantee its survival.

The regime uses pan-Islamic revolutionary rhetoric portraying itself as the voice of anti-western, anti-USA and anti-Israel to implement its policies. The regime maintains the rhetoric that it is the advocate of resistance to appeal to regional revolutionary actors such as the case in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

The founder of the Islamic Republic and leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini emphasised the historical Persian nationalism and  Iranian supremacy calling for the revival of the Persian nation as a regional power.

Despite maintaining the rhetoric that emphasises the role of the protector of all Muslims in the region and the keenness of uniting them, the Islamic Republic of Iran follows the revolutionary ideology of wilayat al-faqih (the right of a Shiite cleric to rule) which is only followed by a minority within Shiite Islam. This ideology gives Iran’s Supreme Leader the right to rule other Islamic countries, even though they are predominantly Sunni Muslim, under supposedly they are ruled by ‘unrepresentative’ regimes.

From positioning itself as a model of Islamic awakening to others, Iran gives itself the rights to interfere in the affairs of other countries. This is clearly reflected in Iran’s constitution which states that ‘Iran provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the revolution at home and abroad’  and it ‘will strive with other Islamic and popular movements to prepare the way for the formation of a single world community’. This emphasises that there are no boundaries that impede the regime from implementing its intervention policy in other countries’ affairs.

One of the regional countries that Iranian regime is targeting to implement such policy is Bahrain. With the inception of the protests that coincided with the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran’s Supreme Leader stressed that the uprisings in the region were “Islamic awakening” that came as a consequence of the success of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

The theocracy exploited the bust of the protests in the Arab countries by politicising them and trying to gaining regional hegemony through supporting these protests under the slogan that it was the model that could guide them.

In a statement, Khamenei stressed that these protests were ‘the revolts of the people of Bahrain are primarily the same as those from the people of Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. They want free elections, is that asking for too much?’  He said that Iran was sporting popular movements in the region under the slogan of Islam and freedom. While the Iranian leaders’ public excuses for supporting these protests in the Arab countries such as Ali Larijani, were that Iran wanted to see the demands of the protesters recognised.

In February, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani laid historical claims to a number of Arabian Gulf countries without naming them. In a speech marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Rouhani said: “47 years ago, which is seven years before the Islamic Revolution during the reign of the traitor Pahlavi regime, an important part of southern Iran separated, and we have read that geographically it was a part of Iran, and its 14th province. That was done by Pahlavi.”

“Hundred years ago, a large part of Iran was separated. In those parts, many countries in the south of the Gulf have formed,” Rouhani said. He also laid claims to several areas including parts of land that are currently in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. Referring to Iran as “the Mother Land”, Rouhani said that during the rule of “the traitor Qajar dynasty 205 years ago”, large portions of lands were separated from Northern Iran and the caucuses. Rouhani was referring to the Kingdom of Bahrain, which Iranian officials in the past have referred to as the “14th province”. The United Nations conducted a referendum in Bahrain in 1970, which asserted the country’s independence.

In a bid to regain its domination on the regional countries, Iran has created proxies in these countries. One of the main Iranian proxy groups is in the Kingdom of Bahrain.  Saraya al Ashtar, also known as the Al Ashtar Brigades, is also one of Iran’s main proxy forces in Bahrain. Several of its leaders are based in Iran, including US-designated terrorists Qassim Abdullah Ali Ahmed and Hasan Yusuf.

In February, the group released its first-ever video statement in which it promises more attacks on the island. The spokesman, identified as a commander within Saraya al Ashtar, began the video by sending the group’s blessings to “the leaders of the free men and resistance fighters, Ayatollah Khomeini and Sheikh Nimr Baqir al Nimr.” He accused the government of working with various intelligence agencies to take down Saraya al Ashtar and other militant groups on the island. The spokesman alleged that the group’s operations have uncovered foreign plots on the island.

Speaking directly to the United States and the United Kingdom, the commander says “so we say to the conspirators against our people that your support for the occupying Khalifa regime will carry a high price for you and will make you a legitimate target for our strikes.”

Bahraini government accuses the group members of recruiting terrorists in Bahrain, facilitating training on weapons and explosives, and suppling funding, weapons, and explosives to carry out attacks in the kingdom.  It also said that Iran provides “extensive support in both weapons and training for the militia, including in Iraq.” In addition, Bahraini officials have accused the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, Lebanese Hezbollah, other important Iranian proxies, of also training and supporting al Ashtar.

Saraya al Ashtar, for its part, does not hide its affiliation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Last year, it adopted more official IRGC branding in its logo and flag. During the same announcement of the re-branding, it also reaffirmed its loyalty to the Islamic Republic. “We believe that the commander and ruler of the Islamic religion is the line of the two imams, Khomeini and Khamenei, which is in the original Muhammad approach in confronting the oppressors and fighting back against the tyrants,” the group’s statement said.

This Iranian support for its proxies in Bahrain can be seen by Bahraini security operations across the island, in which large quantities of advanced Iranian weapons shipments and explosives, including armour-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), have been intercepted. Iran has also buried killed Bahraini militants within its borders, further showing the Islamic Republic’s support of extremists in Bahrain.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.