October 6, 2011
When the history of the 2011 Arab uprisings is written, Bahrain’s chapter will likely be the most unexpected for a casual reader. Though military rule was lifted in June and widespread public protests have not been seen since March, Bahrain’s place in the region’s upheavals remains deeply misunderstood.
Bahrain is not just another falling domino in the Arab Spring. Nor is it experiencing a surge of spontaneous resistance by its people against their rulers. Rather, Bahrain is the victim of a long cycle of intrigue and interference aimed at replacing the moderate and modernizing Khalifa regime with a theocracy under Tehran’s thumb.
This spring, as protesters camped out in Manama’s Pearl Square by night and hurled stones by day, Iran mobilized its public-relations teams, which read scripted newscasts denouncing the Khalifa family. Meanwhile, Tehran’s military drafted intervention plans. Western observers and governments took the bait and shied away from addressing the true origins of the violence, instead urging Bahrain to show restraint.
The misreading was doubly disappointing given Tehran’s long history of working to upset Bahrain’s domestic stability. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, the country’s leaders have assumed that their revolution represents the aspirations of Shiites throughout the Mideast. That is why they have worked to undermine the Sunni Khalifa family’s legitimacy in Bahrain by promoting an ideology of Shiite empowerment. When Nateq Nuri, advisor to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province” in 2009, he was only restating well-worn rhetoric from the revolution 30 years prior.
Today there is an intimidating imbalance of power between Iran and Bahrain. Iran’s standing military numbers 510,000—roughly two-thirds of Bahrain’s entire population. Bahrain would have little to worry about if Iran were content merely to grandstand and make threatening noises. But Tehran has taken concrete steps over the last 30 years to destabilize and de-legitimize Bahrain’s leadership, both directly and through proxies.
The coup failed, but the experience spurred the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which today includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Under the December 1981 Saudi-Bahrain Security Pact, Saudi Arabia placed its entire “potential in the service of Bahrain’s security.”
That didn’t stop Iran from working to extend its power. But in the late 1980s, Iran overplayed its hand when it started mining sea lanes in an attempt to control the Persian Gulf. Four days after a U.S. frigate struck an Iranian mine in 1988, the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis to sweep Iran’s naval presence from both sides of the Gulf.
Having been checked militarily by the U.S., Iran began to deploy more clandestine methods in its quest for regional control. When unemployed Bahrainis rallied at their government’s labor ministry in 1994, Iran filled the country with propaganda advocating a Shiite intifada characterized by “democracy” and “equality.” Tehran even offered to mediate as the “Days of Rage” grew in ferocity and Bahrainis faced daily acts of violence in the unrest, which lasted until 1999.
Mounting evidence of Iran’s duplicity prompted the U.S. to permanently station its Fifth Fleet in Manama in 1995. Taking the move as a provocation, Tehran intensified its intifada and began training Bahraini Shiite fighters in Iran. Among other efforts, Tehran established a military wing for Hezbollah in Bahrain, which attempted another coup in June 1996. Bahraini authorities thwarted the plot only by preemptively arresting dozens of suspects, and the kingdom continued to operate under de-facto martial law that didn’t end until 1999, when Sheik Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa died and his son and successor took over the kingdom.
The new King Hamed bin Issa Al Khalifa promptly ordered an end to emergency rule, instituted a general amnesty for political prisoners and reestablished Bahrain’s popularly elected Shura Council. But while many hoped that Hamed’s gestures would ease Bahrain’s religious tensions, the liberalizations only saw the Shiite community become more militant.
The current uprising, or so-called Pearl Revolution, in fact did not begin this year but dates back to 2008, when Bahraini authorities arrested senior Shiite clerics accused of conspiring against the government. The sporadic violence that ensued culminated in still another attempted coup. Then in December 2008, 14 people were arrested on suspicion of planning a series of terror attacks against commercial centers, diplomatic missions and night clubs in Bahrain. The arrests unleashed still more violence. It was against this backdrop that Iran’s Mr. Nuri called Bahrain Iran’s “14th province,” a statement greeted by joyous chants of agreement from Bahrain’s Shiites.
Despite such revanchism, in the spring of 2009 Hamid declared another amnesty, this time pardoning some 170 prisoners who had been charged with endangering national security, including 35 Shias on trial for allegedly trying to overthrow the government. Normally, this would provide space for reconciliation. But again, Iran’s efforts to push Bahrain into full-scale civil war have kept tensions hot.
Thirty years of intransigence reveal the extent of Tehran’s determination to turn Bahrain into an Iranian satellite. So Iran’s machinations during this year’s protests should have had the international community rushing to support Bahrain, not ostracize it.
Instead, too many decision makers were still lost in the rhetoric of the wider Arab Spring. The specifics of each country are whitewashed in favor of one simplistic mantra: that the Arab peoples have been oppressed by their leaders and want democratic reform.
This is only partially correct in some cases and fundamentally erroneous in Bahrain. Instead of simply reading demonstrator’s placards, leaders need to understand the country’s history. Bahrain is in the midst of an existential struggle against a vastly superior foe. Meanwhile, in Iran, the international community is content to listen to calls for moderate reforms coming from immoderate ayatollahs.