The tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain, ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, has been acutely vulnerable to interference from its much larger Shia neighbor, Iran, given that approximately 70-75% of its populace is Shia. Iran’s ties to Bahrain are more than sectarian. From 1602-1738, the Persian Safavid Empire controlled Bahrain, before the ruling Al Khalifa family came to power. Not until 1970 did Iran drop its territorial claims to Bahrain. Nevertheless, the Iranian regime has persistently attempted to return Bahrain to Shia rule and has even referenced its former sovereignty over the island. In 2009, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a senior official and advisor to the Supreme Leader, bluntly stated that “Bahrain was the fourteenth province of Iran until 1970,” precipitating a crisis between the countries.
In 1981, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB), a militant Shia organization established by Ayatollah Hadi Modarresi, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s personal representative to Bahrain, attempted a coup in Bahrain. Throughout the 1980s and 90’s Bahraini authorities worked to incapacitate the country’s local branch of Hezbollah.
Since anti-monarchy protests began in Bahrain in 2011 amid the wider “Arab Spring,” Tehran has attempted to exploit these demonstrations for sectarian purposes and to undermine the Al Khalifa rulers. On April 22, 2013, Bahraini authorities arrested eight of its citizens for plotting with an Iranian Revolutionary Guard member to assassinate Bahraini officials and target government buildings and the international airport. Later the same year, on December 30, 2013, the Bahraini Coast Guard intercepted an Iranian shipment of over 220 pounds of C4 explosives, 50 hand grenades, land mines, and detonators labeled “made in Syria” that were en route to Shia opposition groups in Bahrain. During interrogation, the detained suspects “admitted to receiving paramilitary training in Iran.”
In September 2015, Bahrain uncovered an illicit Iranian weapons factory aimed at supplying militant elements within the opposition with heavy weaponry to fuel unrest in the kingdom. In June 2016, two men alleged to have “received training in weapons and explosives from Iran's Revolutionary Guards” planted a bomb that killed a Bahraini woman. In January 2017, Bahrain caught another cell backed by the IRGC and Hezbollah which was in the midst of plotting a series of bombings. In February 2017, a 14 member cell linked to Iran carried out a bomb attack on a bus carrying Bahraini police officers, wounding five. According to Bahraini officials, six of the arrestees received military training in IRGC camps, five in Kata’ib Hezbollah facilities, and three in Bahrain. In March 2017, Bahraini authorities broke up an IRGC-linked terror cell, which they accused of plotting to assassinate government officials and attack police and U.S. military targets.
Bahrain has repeatedly warned Iran to refrain from meddling in its internal affairs and said that it “had foiled a decades long terror plot by outsiders,” a reference to the Iranian regime. The main opposition party’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Isa Ahmad Qassem, “is a religious representative of Khamenei” who “propagates his religious authority” and “encourages people to follow [Khamenei] rather than other ‘sources of emulation.’”