The tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain, ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, has been acutely vulnerable to interference from its much larger Shiite neighbor, Iran, given that approximately 70-75 percent of its population is Shiite. In Bahrain, Iran’s revisionist policies are apparent: Tehran aims for no less than the subversion of the ruling Sunni class and the rise of a Shia political movement whose leaders are willing and able to do Iran’s bidding. To this day, Iran seeks to export the Islamic Revolution to Bahrain in a clear violation of its national sovereignty.
With its majority Shia population, Bahrain constitutes a key node within the “Shia Crescent,” which stretches in the shape of an arc through Iran and the Levant. Iran views this arc as a means of acquiring political influence in the sovereign nations where Shia reside, namely Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Often coopting this demographic with the intention of inspiring acts of loyalty to the Supreme Leader of Iran—ranging from violently opposing the royals in Bahrain, attacking US and coalition forces in Iraq, fighting on behalf of an autocrat in Syria, to menacing Israel at its northern border—Iran advances its foreign policy interest of regional domination.
While Iran’s policy of radicalization of this “Shia Crescent” has been notably successful in the Levant, particularly after the 2003 Iraq War and the 2011 “Arab Spring,” it has been less successful in the Gulf. Iran covets a foothold in the Gulf, as it seeks to confront Saudi Arabia and disrupt the mostly cordial diplomatic relations between the predominantly-Shia Bahrain and the predominantly-Sunni Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Furthermore, Tehran aims to evict the US military from its bases in the Gulf, including in Bahrain, which hosts the largest US Navy fleet in the region, the 5th Fleet.
According to a Bahrain expert, 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.’” As such, he is laying a foundation for the Iranian state creed of Velayat-e Faqih, which places ultimate political authority in the hands of the Supreme Leader of Iran. Like other Iran-aligned Shia figures in the region, he is attempting to generate the popular support in Bahrain needed for Iran’s foreign policy objective of subordinating the interests of a sovereign nation to the interests of the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s ties to Bahrain are more than sectarian, though; they are also historical. Up until the 1780s, successive Persian empires controlled Bahrain for centuries. Not until 1970 did Iran, under the leadership of the Shah, drop its territorial claims. Even still, since 1979, the Iranian regime has persistently attempted to return Bahrain to Shiite rule, even referencing its former sovereignty over the island.
In 2009, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, an advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, bluntly stated that “Bahrain was the fourteenth province of Iran until 1970,” precipitating a crisis between the two countries. Similarly, in 2018, Hossein Shariatmadari, Iran’s Supreme Leader’s representative at the Kayhan newspaper, reiterated his statement from ten years prior that “Bahrain is ours [Iran’s]” and that the people of Bahrain want their country to become part of Iran again. Even to this day, some fear that Iran’s backing of a Bahraini insurgency could pave the way for conventional military action.
Iran-Backed Bahraini Insurgency
The provocations against the Bahraini government started ever since the onset of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and continue to this day. In September 1979, only months after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in Iraq, Sadegh Rouhani, a prominent Shia cleric in Iran, warned that if the emir of Bahrain did “not want to stop oppressing the [Bahraini] people and restore Islamic laws, we [the Iranians] will call on the people of Bahrain to demand annexation to the Islamic government of Iran.” As it does in other parts of the region, Iran posed as a liberator of Shia people from the oppression of what it claims to be western-backed tyranny.
Some Bahraini Shiites were inspired by the success of the Iranian Revolution. The most prominent Shiite militia group which formed in Bahrain at this time, under this motivation, was the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB); it was established by Ayatollah Hadi Modarresi, Ayatollah Khomeini’s personal representative to Bahrain.
IFLB leaders traveled to Tehran in 1980 and swore allegiance to the then-Supreme Leader of Iran: “Imam Khomeini is the leader and axis around which our oppressed peoples should rally if they truly seek freedom.” Seeking to create a theocratic government in Bahrain in the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the group executed a failed coup in 1981. Separately, in 1996 Bahraini authorities accused Iran of organizing a coup. Forty-four members of a Hezbollah offshoot, known as Hezbollah al-Hejaz, were arrested. A subsequent investigation showed that these operatives were trained by the IRGC and intent on recreating the Islamic Revolution in Bahrain.
While Iran continuously denies its involvement in Bahrain, Bahrain repeatedly warns Iran to refrain from meddling in its internal affairs. Bahraini officials, along with Bahrain experts, viewed the Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain as a culmination of years of Iranian subversion. Iran’s efforts to spearhead a series of “popular petitions” to reform the Bahraini monarchy is an example of the subversive activity. In 1994, a Bahraini Shiite cleric, Ali Salman, led a drive which acquired, by some estimates, as many as 25,000 signatures, according to authorities in Manama. This led to Bahrain and Iran recalling their respective ambassadors, with Bahraini authorities alleging that the petitions were “planned and backed by foreign propaganda” rather than homegrown.
As was the case in other parts of the Arab world, the “Arab Spring” provided Iran with an opportunity to grow Shia influence in the country. When anti-monarchy protests broke out in Bahrain in 2011, Tehran increased its efforts to undermine the monarchy. It sought to achieve sectarian aims, namely the rise of Shia power and the eventual installment of a Shia government. The Bahraini monarchy was not overthrown, in part because one month after the Arab Spring, Saudi and Emirati armed forces arrived to the island to suppress the protests in operation Peninsula Shield Force. The Bahraini army deployed tanks, shocking and enraging some members of the largely Shia opposition. Partly as a result of this crackdown, several Iran-backed Shia militant organizations formed in Bahrain.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Iran, through the IRGC, Hezbollah, and other Iranian proxies, increased its efforts to provide a Bahraini insurgency not just with soft-power support, as in the instance of the petition drive, but with increasingly effective asymmetric capabilities. Iran prepared Shia extremists with the means that they would need to overthrow the government were another popular protest to break out. In the initial period following the uprisings, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks became increasingly prevalent, but by 2015 Bahraini insurgents were being trained in how to create and deploy armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), which can be used to destroy tanks.
In September 2020, Bahraini security officials revealed that they had foiled a terrorist plot to attack a visiting foreign delegation shortly after the death of Qassem Soleimani. The newly-formed terrorist organization, which is named after the late Iranian general, claimed to be seeking revenge for his death. The announcement came on the heels of the island kingdom’s decision to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords. While there are not many details on the perpetrators of the attack, the Bahraini government prepared a case against eighteen individuals, nine of whom have already fled to Iran, where they were receiving protection from prosecution. More recently, in November 2021, Bahraini authorities arrested an unspecified number of individuals for planning an attack and confiscated weapons and explosives which came from Iran.
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was created at the time of the Islamic Revolution to protect the revolution from dissidents. The Supreme Leader particularly feared pro-Shah elements within the Iranian military, so he organized an ideologically-driven paramilitary out of Islamists loyal to him. The IRGC continues to take care of domestic security—that is to say, it silences all dissent in Iran—but soon after, the revolution expanded its operations to include coordinating, strengthening, and directing revolutionaries abroad. Today, an elite branch of the IRGC, known as the Quds force, takes the lead on these operations, which are central to Iran’s foreign policy.
The IRGC has looked to Bahrain to recruit hardline members of the Shia opposition. Often, the IRGC will bring these recruits to training bases outside of Bahrain and then reinsert them back into Bahrain as cell leaders, able to conduct guerrilla warfare and carry out terror attacks on public facilities as well as civilian populations. The IRGC coordinates all aspects of recruitment, training, funding and arming of these groups with the help of Hezbollah and Iraqi militias—for example, Kataib Hezbollah.
Kataib Hezbollah (KH) is a radical Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group, backed and directed by the IRGC. Prior to his assassination, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a powerful leader in the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), led this group. In June 2015, Bahraini police chief, Tariq al-Hassan, accused the US-designated terrorist of providing training in EFPs at camps in Iraq and logistical and financial support to Saraya al-Ashtar (discussed below). KH is ideologically committed to Iran’s extraterritorial goals, frequently expressing their support for the Bahraini Shia and even threatening military action against the Bahraini monarchy.
Given that Bahrain is an island nation, insurgents (along with arms and other materials) must travel to and from by boat. Researchers at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, uncovered their (and their IRGC backers) dependency on maritime routes. They explained in a January 2018 report that “the most regular known use of militant boat sorties is the inbound smuggling of explosives, weapons components, or whole weapons systems.”
On April 22, 2013, an IRGC member allegedly worked with eight Bahraini citizens to plot the assassination of Bahraini officials and target government buildings and the international airport. The plot was foiled, and the Bahrainis were arrested.
The IRGC not only provides operational support to terrorist individuals and groups in Bahrain, but they also provide material support. Later in 2013, on December 30, 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 Shiite 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. Bahrain recalled its ambassador to Iran the next month. In November of that year, Bahrain arrested 47 members of an Iran-linked cell that was plotting to carry out imminent attacks on Bahraini territory.
The IRGC provides training to Bahraini terrorists in conducting subversive activities. In June 2016, two men, allegedly trained in weapons and explosives by the IRGC, planted a bomb that killed a Bahraini woman. In February 2017, an Iran-linked 14-member cell bombed a bus carrying Bahraini police officers, wounding five. According to Bahraini officials, six of the arrestees received military training in IRGC-run camps, including Kata’ib Hezbollah facilities and camps in Bahrain. In March 2017, Bahraini authorities broke up a terror cell they accused of planning to assassinate government officials and attack police and U.S. military targets with IRGC support. In March 2018, the government revealed that it had arrested 116 members of an IRGC-coordinated group that was planning to attack senior Bahrain officials and critical infrastructure. Manama claimed that almost half of the arrestees received training from the IRGC in Iran or in Iran-linked facilities in Iraq and Lebanon.
In April 2019, a Bahraini court sentenced to prison 139 Bahrainis, of whom 69 received life sentences (25 years), on terrorism charges. The court also revoked their citizenship. The GOB accused the individuals of forming an organization it referred to as “Bahraini Hizballah” with the intention of carrying out attacks in Bahrain.
Iranian Illicit Finance in Bahrain
Iran has a history of laundering money through Bahraini banks to circumvent financial sanctions. Bahraini officials alleged in 2016 that Future Bank, which was set up as a joint-venture with Iranian banks, had laundered $7.4 billion, using practices such as “wire-stripping,” which is when a bank changes or removes identifying information of financial transactions. More specifically, Future Bank “concealed basic information on international transactions, including through the SWIFT network, to disguise entities likely to face US sanctions,” Bahraini officials found. This is a violation of Bahraini law and banking regulations.
In May 2021, Bahraini Attorney-General Ali bin Fadhel Al Buainain announced findings of “unlawful practices” carried out by Future Bank in conjunction with Iranian banks between 2008 and 2012. Thirteen banks were referred to court for prosecution, including Future Bank, Bank Melli Iran, Bank Saderat Iran, and the Iranian Central Bank. Such money laundering schemes are essential to Iran’s efforts to finance terrorism throughout the region. In August 2021, Bahrain’s High Criminal Court found the Central Bank of Iran guilty of money laundering and confiscated $1.3 billion dollars-worth of Iranian funds belonging to Future Bank.
The al-Ashtar Brigades
In January 2016, Bahrain caught an IRGC- and Hezbollah-backed cell plotting a series of bombings. The Bahraini authorities claimed that one of the main suspects received $20,000 from Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in Iran. The cell was allegedly part of Saraya al-Ashtar (“al-Ashtar Brigades”), a Shia militant group in Bahrain which has claimed responsibility for more than 20 attacks in Bahrain since 2013, including one in March 2014 that killed three police officers, three of which were Bahraini and one from the United Arab Emirates. The AAB was founded in 2013 and is among the deadliest Shia groups operating in Bahrain. They have called for violence against the US, Saudi and Bahraini governments, according to the State Department.
The AAB also allegedly engaged in particularly brutal and highly-visible acts of violence against public servants. Relying on urban warfare tactics that they likely learned abroad, soon after the 2011 uprisings, AAB members “[drew] security personnel into the villages and kill[ed] them in highly publicized, highly charged sectarian violence.” They proceeded to release videos of the executions on social media for propaganda purposes, emphasizing that their aim was to “overthrow [the] Al Khalifa rule.”
In February 2018, the AAB changed its logo to adopt IRGC branding, reflecting its role as part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” against the U.S. and its allies in the region. The AAB also reaffirmed its fealty to the Iranian regime, stating, “We believe that the commander and ruler of the Islamic religion is the line of the two imams, Khomeini and Khamenei…” It outlined new objectives, including cultivating a “resistance and martyrdom culture” and “creat[ing] a deterrent force.”
This latter objective is held in common with all of Iran’s proxies. For example, Hezbollah, located on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, acts as a deterrent against Israeli strikes on Iranian assets. Similarly, the Houthis in Yemen, which regularly carry out missile, rocket, and drone attacks on the Saudi and Emirati homeland, act as a deterrent against those countries, while also sapping their resources in a war that has had a devastating humanitarian toll. An armed Shia militant group in Bahrain could serve as an additional deterrent directed at Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Hezbollah is a model Iranian proxy. Moreover, AAB may have designs on increasing its political clout by channeling Iranian funding into social or religious services for a marginalized Shia community, as Hezbollah does in Lebanon. This would be consistent with the aspiration of Iranian proxies to become a Hezbollah-style “state within a state.”
Hezbollah has taken a lead role in the ideological and military training of militants throughout the region—and this is no exception in Bahrain. In late 1985, the CIA reported that over 2,000 Shias were training at a Hezbollah-run camp near Bala’bakk; the sixty of them who were from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were expected to perform operations in the Gulf. Later, after Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in the year 2000, the Lebanese-based Shia terrorist organization, probably at the behest of Iran, shifted its attention to the propagation of the Islamic Revolution throughout the region. The IRGC manages the funding of this organization, and it also facilitates Hezbollah in its efforts to train groups, including AAB.
Bahrain added the AAB to its list of terrorist groups in 2014. In March 2017, the U.S. State Department designated two AAB members, Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi and the Iran-based Ahmad Hasan Yusuf, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). The 2017 designations represented a departure from Obama-era policy, which was geared toward mending ties with a pariah regime in Tehran in order to come to an agreement on the nuclear deal. For the first time, the Trump administration went after Iran’s network in Bahrain, with the steadfast support of other GCC nations.
In July 2018, the State Department designated the AAB itself as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and an SDGT, stating that AAB “members have received weapons and explosives from Iran, training at IRGC-funded camps in Iraq, and senior AAB members have taken refuge in Iran to evade prosecution by Bahraini authorities.” In August of that year, the State Department also designated an Iran-based AAB senior member, Qassimal-Muamen, as an SDGT. Muamen is said to be a “principal coordinator” for foreign military training within the AAB, which suggests that he works closely with the IRGC and other IRGC-backed proxies.
On October 31, 2019, the Bahraini judiciary issued life sentences to five nationals for “forming a terrorist cell” affiliated with al-Ashtar Brigades. In February 2019, AAB released a video statement promising more attacks in Bahrain to mark the anniversary of Bahrain’s Arab Spring-inspired political uprising.
Additional Shiite Militant Groups
In addition to AAB, a variety of other Shiite militant groups remain committed to the overthrow of the Bahraini monarchy. For example, the Saraya Al-Mukhtar Brigade, which has similar branding to the IRGC, has a history of carrying out terrorist acts in Bahrain and promoting them via social media. The group was created in July 2011, following the Arab Spring uprising. In 2017, at which point the capabilities of the group had substantially improved, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt designated it as a terrorist organization. Not until December 2020 did the U.S. Treasury Department impose terrorism sanctions on the al-Mukhtar Brigades. In the designation, the U.S. government cited the significant risk that this group would commit acts of terrorism. It based this assessment on numerous past plots against U.S. personnel in Bahrain and the offering of cash rewards for the assassination of Bahraini officials.
After the death of Qassem Soleimani, the Al-Mukhtar Brigade put out a statement claiming that they would exact revenge: “We consider all its [the US’s] interests and presence in Bahrain to be legitimate targets for us.” The group’s rhetoric, though, is more pronounced than its capabilities, according to one analyst. The group relies on rudimentary improvised explosive devices for their attacks, but it also has “advanced cyber-terrorism capabilities,” which are growing from efforts to hack social media accounts used to recruit and radicalize young men, to attacking infrastructure and official government platforms. Moreover, it maintains an extensive social media presence.
Saraya al-Muqawama al-Shabiya (SMS), also known as the Popular Resistance Brigades, is another similar organization with purported connections to the IRGC. This group reportedly was behind the detonation of an IED near the U.S. Fifth Fleet and an attack on a branch of the National Bank of Bahrain. Bahrain’s chief of public security estimated in May 2018 that, since 2011, AAB and other Shiite militant organizations have caused 22 deaths and more than 3,500 injuries to policemen. Bahraini officials have also arrested members of a group known as Bahraini Hezbollah: in 2019, 139 people were sentenced for joining this Iran-linked terrorist group, executing bombings, and receiving arms and explosives training.
Nevertheless, most Shia in Bahrain are either against closer relations with Iran or indifferent. According to a recent poll, not even a majority of the Bahraini Shia community finds that good relations with Iran are an “important” foreign policy consideration. While the Shia community is more inclined to seek relations with Iran than the Sunni community in Bahrain, it is notable that only thirty-nine percent of Bahraini Shia think these relations are important, while thirteen percent of Sunnis do.
The Abraham Accords
In September 2020, a month after the Abraham Accords were signed, Sheikh Isa Qassim, the prominent Shia spiritual leader of a suspended Bahraini opposition party, al Wefaq, seconded a statement put out by that organization rejecting the Abraham Accords. In the statement, the non-official party said, “the Bahraini government does not possess the legitimacy to normalize [relations with Israel], and because the Zionist entity is itself illegitimate.” He stated, from Iran, that he was against the normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel and called for the region to “resist this defeat.” An Israeli think-tank with close ties to the IDF published a report at the time which anticipated more episodes of Iran-sponsored terrorism in Bahrain with the goal of derailing the normalization trend with Israel.
In September 2021, Israel opened an embassy in Manama and the Foreign Minister of Israel, Yair Lapid, made a landmark trip to the island nation—a trip which was denounced by Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. In response to the trip, the Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson said, “This stain will not be erased from the reputation of Bahrain’s rulers. The people of the region will continue to oppose the process of normalization of ties with the Zionist regime.”
Referring to the process of normalization between Bahrain and Israel, the Iranian foreign minister, who was previously the ambassador to Bahrain, said to the Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan: Iran would not tolerate “activities of the Zionist regime against its national security.” Following his remarks, anti-Israel protests broke out in Bahrain, featuring slogans and chants that resemble hardline Iranian rhetoric, including “Death to Israel” chants.
Then in February 2022, Israeli Prime Minster Naftali Bennett traveled to Bahrain to meet the Bahraini King and held discussions about increasing economic and security cooperation between the states. Bennett’s office stated that the meeting would be geared toward the two countries’ deepening bilateral relationship, economic and diplomatic cooperation, and technological innovation. Furthermore, Bennett described the meeting as an opportunity to coordinate on a mutual threat: Iran.
Tehran reacted furiously. An Iranian news outlet, Fars News, published an article citing experts who described the cooperation as being geared toward “economic and media pressure [on Iran]” as well as “intelligence operations aimed at sabotage and insurgency inside the country [Iran].”
The IRGC may seek to coordinate an attack on Bahrain to deter further cooperation, especially military cooperation, with Israel. A commander in the IRGC, Mohammad Tehrani Moghaddam, warned Gulf Arab rulers against allowing their country to be used for an Israeli strike on Iran: “we [the Iranians] will certainly target them [the rulers of Gulf Arab countries] with the Revolutionary Guards’ invisible arrows.”
The new Abraham Accords will increase Iranian paranoia about Bahrain. Earlier in the month, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz signed a memorandum of understanding with his Bahraini counterpart in Bahrain, which was created to “help advance intelligence cooperation, a framework for exercises, and cooperation between the countries’ defense industries,” according to Gantz’s office.
Iran views this new military cooperation as a threat; it opposes Israeli military presence in the Gulf. Iran’s foreign minister described Israeli military presence as “a threat to all countries and the region itself” in a call with the Emirati foreign minister in February 2022. The IRGC has similarly reacted with alarm. Iran-backed political parties protested the meeting between Gantz and his counterpart, waving signs that said “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.
Israel confirmed in February 2022 that an Israeli naval officer will be stationed in the country. It is the first time an Israeli military officer will be posted in an Arab country. This is not to mention ongoing discussions among the Abraham Accord members—specifically UAE, Bahrain, and Israel—about intelligence sharing and the creation of a regional integrated air and missile defense system.
Bahrain and Israel also seem to be in agreement with regard to the ongoing negotiations in Vienna. Bahrain Under Secretary for International Relations at the Foreign Ministry said in Jerusalem that the “JCPOA has caused more instigation and extremism in many different regions across the Middle East.”