Iran bites its tongue on Bahrain?

On March 12, the United States Department of the Treasury sanctioned four individuals for supporting the Iran-linked al-Ashtar Brigades in Bahrain. The four Bahrainis apparently live in Iran and allegedly support the al-Ashtar militant group via financial, technical, and other kinds of assistance.

Given Washington’s close security cooperation with Manama, this US announcement might suggest that Iranian-Bahraini relations are about to take a nose-dive. But in reality, that is unlikely to happen — at least not while Iranian-Saudi détente continues, which remains the case for now.

Iran considers Bahraini foreign policy to be extensively shaped by Saudi Arabia. Tehran’s approach toward Bahrain is, therefore, very much linked to its overall interest in reducing tensions with Riyadh. At the moment, those considerations trump any interest Tehran has in backing Bahraini Shi’a Islamists who historically have looked to Iran for patronage.

Why go after al-Ashtar now?

It was the Trump administration that first designated the al-Ashtar Brigades as a terrorist organization in 2018. This raises the question of why the Biden administration is imposing these new sanctions now, when Washington has not provided any new evidence that al-Ashtar poses an imminent threat.

The most likely explanation for the timing has to do with the current heightened regional tensions. The al-Ashtar Brigades and similar Iran-backed Arab groups have been vocal in recent months in criticizing the US for its support of Israel in its war against Hamas in Gaza. Notably, al-Ashtar issued condolences after the United States killed a top member of a pro-Iran Iraqi militia in February who had been linked to attacks on American forces.

In other words, the decision to sanctions these four Bahraini Islamists might very well have nothing to do with any new imminent threat the group poses to the US or to the Bahrani state. Instead, it is part of a preemptive push by Washington to deter Iran and its Arab militant proxies, warning them to think twice before any attempt to escalate tensions in the region or target a critical Western partner among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

Notably, Bahrain is home to military bases of both the United States — specifically, the US Navy’s 5th fleet — and of the United Kingdom. It is, thus, no coincidence that London designated al-Ashtar a terrorist group back in 2017; and the March 12, 2024, sanctions on al-Ashtar were, in fact, coordinated between London and Washington.

But beyond hosting American and British military forces, this tiny island kingdom also stands out due to Manama’s openly declared commitment to confronting the Houthis in Yemen. Bahrain and the Houthis have been at loggerheads since the Yemeni movement took over Sana’a, the country’s capital, in 2014, and Manama joined the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis the following year — King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa even vowed then that he would send his own sons to fight. As late as September 2023, two Bahraini soldiers were killed by the Iran-backed Houthis on the Yemeni-Saudi border. More recently, Bahrain was the only Arab country to join Operation Prosperity Guardian, the US-led coalition effort aimed at deterring Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

The bad blood between the Houthis and Bahrain’s rulers thus goes back at least a decade. Still, while this Bahraini-Houthi feud is deep, Tehran does not want to let it dictate its official policy stance toward Manama given Iran’s overall geopolitical push to reduce tensions with the Arab Gulf states.

The big picture in Iran-Bahrain relations

Bahrain is presently the only Arab-majority country in the Gulf region that does not have diplomatic ties with Iran. Manama broke ties in January 2016, after the Saudi embassy was torched in Tehran by a group of thugs linked to the Iranian regime. The attack was motivated by Riyadh’s execution of a Saudi Shi’a dissident.

Although the Iranian and Bahraini sides held several official meetings during the course of the last year, Manama has yet to resume diplomatic relations with Tehran — even after Riyadh and Tehran normalized their ties in March 2023. In this context, two basic realities stand out.

First, there is no love lost between the Shi’a Islamist regime in Tehran and Bahrain’s Sunni Al Khalifa ruling family, despite the fact that diplomatic pleasantries are exchanged on rare occasions. In recent years, the bottom in relations was probably during 2011, when protests broke out in Bahrain and some Shi’a opposition activists in the country asked Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for support.

Khamenei has on many occasions lumped the people of Bahrain together with Palestinians and Yemenis as downtrodden Muslims who deserve Iran’s support and intervention. That sort of posture — wherein Tehran claims it is obligated to interfere in the internal affairs of nearby states — is exactly what Manama has always considered the core cause of its tensions with the Iranian regime.

The second reality, however, is that Tehran is facing a tough moment of decision. Although, over the years, it has invested heavily in supporting multiple opposition and often militant Arab groups, including those in Bahrain, today Iran wants to cultivate diplomatic, economic, and even geopolitical ties with all of the major Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

The leadership in Tehran recognizes that open support for Arab opposition groups is a major obstacle to true Iranian peace with Arab Gulf states. And Tehran also knows very well that Bahraini stability is a particularly sensitive concern for the Saudis: Any turmoil in Bahrain has the potential to quickly spread to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where the country’s own Shi’a minority is concentrated. In this sense, Iran’s restraint toward Bahrain is more about satisfying Saudi expectations than engaging the Al Khalifa family in Manama.

And yet, as of today, Tehran has not shown sufficient seriousness — at least not from the perspective of many on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf — to renounce its role as a sponsor of some Arab Islamist groups. This missing factor is arguably not only an impediment in Iranian-Bahraini relations but also the stubborn silent spoiler in Tehran-Riyadh ties, even after their official reconciliation in March 2023.

For Bahrain’s ruling elite, the issue of Iran is that much more sensitive. Bahraini Islamists who live in Iran often express support for Tehran’s “Axis of Resistance” model, the Iran-led informal coalition that aims to push the United States out of the Middle East and topple the existing regional political order.

Not only is the majority population in Bahrain Shi’a — even as many of them oppose the concept of political Islam as practiced in Tehran — but Iran gave up its territorial claim on the island only as recently as March 1970. On top of that, as a host to US and UK military forces and having signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020, Manama has good reasons to fear the Iranian Islamist regime’s antagonism.

That said, Iran shows no signs at the moment that it seeks any escalation vis-à-vis Bahrain. Not only has Iran effectively reconciled itself with the reality of Bahrain’s close security ties with the US and its relations with Israel but it has remained relatively silent on Bahrain’s decision to join the US-led anti-Houthi naval coalition. Illustratively, Tehran announced last December that Bahrain would be among 33 countries whose citizens no longer need a visa to enter Iran.

The Islamic Republic says this visa-free policy for the Gulf states is part of its broader effort to expand relations and cooperation, especially in the field of strengthening people-to-people ties. The challenge for Bahraini officials is how to navigate a possible détente with Tehran without creating any openings for the Iranian regime to interfere in Bahrain’s delicate political balance of power domestically or spark concerns from its strategic Western partners.

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