Small Wars Journal

Iran’s Involvement in Bahrain

Wed, 03/11/2015 - 7:35am

Iran’s Involvement in Bahrain: A Battleground as Part of the Islamic Regime’s Larger Existential Conflict

Jason Rivera

An Introduction to the Iranian Security Calculus

The Iranian state is engaged in an existential conflict for the future of the ruling government, Shia Islam, and its status as a regional hegemonic power. Strategically postured against three powerful adversaries to include the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, Iran perceives itself as the underdog in a protracted conflict where it is outmanned, outgunned, militarily surrounded, and diplomatically isolated. To Iran’s further detriment, the Islamic Regime is accused, rightly or wrongly, by the United Nations (UN) Security Council of seeking the means to develop a nuclear weapon, which has resulted in devastating sanctions against the Iranian economy and has placed Iran on the precipice of war with a superior United States military force stationed throughout the Persian Gulf and an aggressive, war-hardened, and technologically superior Israeli military force to the West. Given these disadvantages, Iran’s security posture is, if nothing else, precarious and seemingly uncertain.

The above pessimistic characterization of the Iranian security posture is a rudimentary introduction to the Iranian problem set, yet serves to demonstrate how the regime may perceive their future survival objectives and accordingly construct their strategic calculus. In response to these perceived threats, Iran has historically relied on asymmetric strategies to include less costly (yet threatening) military deterrents such as their theater ballistic missile (TBM) program, a robust information operations campaign directed at both internal and external audiences, and support to key non-state actors in order to extend the regime’s capacity to influence politics and population centers throughout the Southwest Asia region. The latter of these asymmetric strategies is potentially the most critical to Iran’s future security posture as it provides the regime the necessary strategic depth to achieve its prime objectives – maintaining the continuity of its government, promoting Shia Islam, and becoming a regional hegemon.

In the process of supporting regional non-state actors, Iran finds itself decisively engaged via its proxies throughout the Southwest Asia region. The most well-known Iranian proxy is Hezbollah, a political group with a militant wing operating primarily in Lebanon, but also suspected to have operations throughout Southwest Asia and as far away as South America.[1] In the southern portions of the Saudi Peninsula, Iran is suspected of providing moral and material support to the Houthi rebels, a minority Shi’ite rebel group that is staging a resistance movement and holding territory in Northwest Yemen.[2] While Yemen in of itself is of little strategic importance to the Iranian government, a destabilized Yemen serves to further destabilize Saudi Arabia, which is integral to Iran’s long-term strategy. Within Iraq, Iran was and still is known to use its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force to provide arms and training to Jaysh al-Maidi and the Sadr Militia, two pro-Shi’ite insurgent groups that were heavily involved in combat operations throughout Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and continue to maintain a low level presence to this day.[3] Most recently, Iran has deployed members of its IRGC to Iraq in order to combat the Sunni led Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)[4] and preserve gains made over the last decade. These three examples are amongst the most well-known and regularly studied Iranian efforts to support non-state actors and foreign insurgencies, however, they are not Iran’s only efforts to support and/or inspire foreign insurgencies nor are they necessarily the most important to Iran’s strategic objectives. This paper contends that Iran has a substantial strategic objective in fomenting the conditions for a Shi’ite insurgency in the nation of Bahrain and is actively seeking to do so through indirect support operations to the nation’s Shi’ite majority population.

Bahrain’s Strategic Importance     

Bahrain, a small island nation located in the Persian Gulf, is a Sunni-led monarchy and member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) whose government is widely considered to be a puppet state of Saudi Arabia.[5] Unlike the rest of the GCC[6], which is overwhelmingly comprised of Sunni Muslims, Bahrain’s Shi’ite sect of Islam comprises approximately 70% of the nation’s Muslim population.[7] Like the other GCC states, Shi’ite Muslims in Bahrain are notoriously under-represented in politics, are unable to serve in key government positions of power, are generally barred from serving on the police force, and are generally not allowed to serve as officers in Bahrain’s armed forces. The al-Khalifa family, a Sunni family that first established control in Bahrain in the 1700s, has managed to retain control with the support of the Saudis and, to this day, continues to rule over the Shi’ite majority.[8]

Bahrain’s predicament is similar to many historical and current situations where a majority population serves under and experiences suppression from a ruling minority population. Such a model bares its roots in the world’s colonial era, where European nations regularly empowered a ruling local minority in order to maintain strict and scalable control over a larger body of people. Bahrain’s importance, however, is not derived from the tragedy of its politics, but rather the strategic importance the island nation has to regional stakeholders to include the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

The United States, a nation that has become heavily vested in Southwest Asia over the last decade, relies on Bahrain’s strategic position in the Persian Gulf in order to conduct command and control of the region’s naval capabilities. Specifically, Bahrain is the headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, otherwise known as Navy Central Command (NAVCENT).[9] This military entity is capable of projecting command and control over two Carrier Battle Groups, nuclear submarines, a fleet hospital, an expeditionary Marine Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST),[10] and a host of air powered intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.[11] In terms of the United States Central Command’s (CENTCOM) air defense posture, Bahrain is currently manned by two Patriot missile batteries scattered throughout the island[12] and is critical to CENTCOM’s integrated air defense strategy. Lastly, the United States possesses a limited military presence at Sheikh Isa Air Base located at the southern tip of Bahrain and is the headquarters to a naval Patrol Squadron responsible for flying the P-3 aircraft, an ISR asset responsible for conducting anti-submarine missions and strategic reconnaissance missions.[13]

Saudi Arabia, one of Iran’s strategic adversaries, has a critical stake in Bahrain for both political and strategic reasons. Politically, King Abdullah and the other members of the ruling Saudi family rely on the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain to maintain a peaceful relationship with its Shia population. Note figure 1’s[14] illustration of Bahrain’s proximity to Saudi Arabia’s highest

density area for members of its Shi’ite population; the relationship and proximity of the Shi’ite populations in both nations creates a situation where political rupture in Bahrain could very easily spillover to Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Bahrain’s location within the Persian Gulf provides a strategic buffer against the Iranian TBM threat. The radar system contained within U.S. Patriot missile batteries is capable of detecting incoming air threats up to 100km out[15]; when leveraged as part of a larger integrated air defense systems (IADS) apparatus, the specific location of these missile batteries has the effect of providing a strategic obstacle between Iran’s ballistic missile operating areas and the Saudi capital of Riyadh (note figure 2[16]).

Similarly to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s interests in Bahrain are cultural, strategic, and also economic in nature. Iran’s cultural interests in Bahrain are primarily derived from the island nation’s Shi’ite majority and a perceived opportunity to expand Iranian influence throughout the Gulf. In terms of influence, Iran has managed to exploit the cultural Sunni-Shia divide in Bahrain over the last three years by taking advantage of the al-Khalifa family’s paranoia.  The family insists that Shia’s political sentiments have been “hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region” as opposed to being derived from legitimate grievances.[17] The ruling family’s paranoia has resulted in an ongoing crackdown against Shia dissidents, which has given Iran the opportunity to express itself in a positive light to Bahrain’s population by attempting to provide humanitarian aid and making political statements calling for peace and calm. Strategically, a Shia led government under Iranian influence in Bahrain may imply opportunities for Iran to rid the island nation of U.S. military presence in favor of Iranian military presence, which not only would remove a strategic U.S. foothold in the region but would also allow for the placement of Iranian military assets in the immediate proximity of Saudi Arabia. Lastly, increased Iranian influence in Bahrain would potentially yield economic benefits such as increased participation in oil projects in southern areas throughout the Persian Gulf, participation in projects with other GCC countries, and increased regional investment in Iranian energy development.[18]

The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s conflicting interests in Bahrain facilitate conditions that have morphed the island nation into a proxy battleground as part of the greater protracted conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam as well as the ever-brewing tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Further accelerated from early 2011 onward by the events of the Arab Spring, the Kingdom of Bahrain has found itself mired down in a war of ideas, culture, political interests, and strategic military competition. As stated earlier in this paper, Iran finds itself at a disadvantage in terms of its conventional military force posture in addition to the Islamic Regime’s inability to galvanize the international community unto its cause. Consequently, Iran has turned to and continues to pursue a strategy of direct and indirect insurgency support operations within Bahrain in order to achieve its security objectives. The remainder of this paper shall further profile Iran’s insurgency support operations within Bahrain by conducting a historical overview of Iran’s operations within the island nation, reviewing Iran’s role in Bahrain throughout the events of the Arab Spring, and providing insights via supplementing testimony, observed host-nation military and police sentiments, and in-person experiences from the author’s on-ground presence in Bahrain during the late 2010 and early 2011 timeframe.

Iran’s Involvement in Bahrain: Pre-2011

Iran’s interest in Bahrain’s Shia heritage began in 1602 during the Iranian Safavid dynasty,[19]  which is considered the beginning of modern Persian history and is known for the establishment of the Twelver school of Shia Islam.[20] The Islamic Regime’s de-facto rule over Bahrain lasted until the conquest of the al-Khalifa tribe in 1782, which came as an invasion on the eastern shores of Bahrain from the nation of Qatar to the east. This invasion subsequently forced many Shia to flee to the northern and western portions of Bahrain,[21] which in turn caused the demographic division of Bahrain’s Shi’ite population and is a critical factor in the fomenting of conditions ripe for insurgency at the current time. Figure 3 portrays those districts where Shi’ite opposition party, al-Wefaq, holds seats in the Bahraini parliament,[22] which is indicative of where the majority of Bahrain’s Shi’ite population currently resides. Figure 4 is an interactive Google Map maintained by the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain that portrays areas which are off limits to Embassy personnel, military service members, and their families due to civil unrest and violent activity.[23] Note the correlation between the two maps in terms of Shi’ite population centers and areas where unrest and violence tend to be higher.

With the rising prominence of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent dominance of Sunni Islam, the Shi’ite sect became increasingly isolated which drastically affected the sentiments of the Shi’ite population in Bahrain. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran played a critical role in giving hope to Bahraini Shia oppositionists and gave rise to the creation of Shia resistance groups throughout the nation. Bahraini Shi’ites became encouraged by the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and the relationship between Bahrain’s Shia population and the Islamic Regime was further cemented when Iranian clerics came to preach in Bahrain. The clerics’ visits “coincidentally” occurred around the same time that a radical Shi’ite group known as the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) came into prominence.[24] In 1980, IFLB’s leadership held a conference in Tehran, at the conclusion of which they issued a statement that “Imam Khomeini is the leader and axis around which our oppressed peoples should rally if they truly seek freedom, since Imam Khomeini is the summit of jihad and faith and the symbol of challenge and endurance. He is the hope of all the oppressed in the world.”[25]

The IFLB’s most overt action against the Bahraini government took place in 1981, when the insurgent group executed a failed coup attempt that was largely backed by Iran.[26] Iranian support to the IFLB’s coup attempt took several forms, the most notable of which included Tehran’s provision of fake Bahraini police uniforms, training, funding, extensive media and propaganda assistance, and the provision of weapons.[27] The coup attempt’s failure was followed by the trial of 73 IFLB members; however, the Bahraini government was careful in its judicial rulings to not be overly harsh as to mitigate further unrest amongst the nation’s Shi’ite majority.[28] Instead, the more radical members of the IFLB were slowly and systematically deported from Iran,[29] resulting in the gradual dissipation of the group throughout the 1990s and its complete dissolution in 2002. King Hamad al-Khalifa managed to mitigate the IFLB supporter’s primary grievances by facilitating reforms that increased integration of Shia leaders into the Bahraini political process via the formation of the Council of Representatives, a 40-member parliament with limited constitutional powers.[30]

Starting in the 1980s through the 1990s, Iran sought (in a more direct manner than through the IFLB) to replicate the success of Hezbollah’s operations in Lebanon via the implementation of split-off branch known as Hezbollah al-Hejaz. This group was initially based in Qom, Iran and was trained alongside Lebanese Hezbollah with the intent of conducting insurgency support operations in Shia populated areas of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.[31] Hezbollah al-Hejaz is best known for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, an attack that killed 19 U.S. service members and injured hundreds of others.[32] Though they have not since executed an attack of the same magnitude, Hezbollah has maintained a fairly robust presence throughout the GCC has been an integral part of Iran’s operations in the region.

Specifically in Bahrain, Hezbollah played an active role throughout the 1990s both in terms of combat logistics operations and insurgency support efforts. In 1994, after having received training from the IRGC, Hezbollah al-Hejaz attempted to smuggle improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and weapons into Bahrain at the direction of Iranian intelligence services.[33] In 1996, Hezbollah agents in Bahrain joined an ongoing wave of civil disobedience and disturbances directed against the ruling regime to include participation in arson and the facilitation of pro-Iranian radio communications from Iranian radio stations.[34] Bahraini security forces soon after arrested 44 Hezbollah operatives, after which a subsequent investigation revealed that Bahraini Hezbollah had been trained by IRGC and that Iran’s intent was to inspire events in Bahrain similar to that of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.[35]

Outside of the IFLB and Hezbollah al-Hejaz, Iran’s support to dissident groups within Bahrain prior to late 2010 was primarily geared towards Shia-based political parties. The three most important of these political parties are al-Wefaq, the Haq Movement, and the Bahrain Freedom Movement. As of Bahrain’s most recent elections in 2010m Al-Wefaq, the largest of the three important Shia political parties, currently holds 18 out of 40 seats on the Council of Representatives.[36] Al-Wefaq is the only licensed Shia political party in Bahrain and is leveraged by the Bahraini Sunni leadership as a controlled outlet for Bahrain’s Shi’ite population to marginally participate in the political process. Of note, al-Wefaq has always held less than 50% of seats in the Council of Representatives, despite Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite population, due to district gerrymandering and a host of fraudulent leadership sponsored activities. In addition to questionable election practices, the Bahraini constitution mandates that the Chairman of the Board of Deputies[37] is appointed by King. Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Zahrani, a member of King Hamad’s extended family, has served in this position since the formation of the Council of Representatives in 2002.[38] Moreover, any legislation passed by the Council of Representatives is subject to the review and approval of the Majlis al-Shura, an advisory council whose members are also appointed by the king.[39] Thus despite the reforms promised by King Hamad in 2002, the governmental changes were merely cosmetic in nature and were intentionally designed to marginalize al-Wefaq’s already limited role in Bahraini politics.

Unlike al-Wefaq which is considered to be fairly moderate, the Haq Movement and Bahrain Freedom Movement are fringe Shi’ite political groups within Bahrain that are unlicensed and therefore do not have the ability to legally participate in Bahraini elections. The Bahrain Freedom Movement is comprised primarily of former IFLB members; their leader, Saeed al-Shehabi, is currently exiled in London and conducts public outreach activities from abroad.[40] Al-Haq’s original leadership, to include Abd al-Wahhab Hussein and Hasan Musheima, were originally members of al-Wefaq and left to form al-Haq due to frustrations with al-Wefaq’s moderate stance.[41] Members of both groups are often accused of being direct proxies of the Iranian government or current Hezbollah al-Hejaz sympathizers; this has culminated in accusations that these groups have received training abroad in places like Iran or Syria and has resulted in the subsequent arrest of several key members.[42] Iran’s support to these groups prior to 2011 can best be described as passive, psychological, and financial in nature. Though the Islamic Regime was and still remains intent on promoting an Islamic revolution in Bahrain, they tend to limit their support and are somewhat discriminate in their choice to provide material support to militant operations, thus alluding to the possible reason as to why Iran has chosen to not militarize the Haq or Bahrain Freedom Movements.

From late 2010 onwards, several events have come to pass that have drastically changed the Iranian approach of inspiring an Islamic revolution inside Bahrain. The most significant of these events was the Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave of civil wars, protests, demonstrations, and riots that began to erupt across the Arab on 18 December 2010 and still continues through the present day. Other smaller, more isolated, yet highly significant events include the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq in December 2011, the demolition of Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout[43] on 18 March 2011, and both the initial and ongoing deployments of Saudi, Emirati, Jordanian, and Pakistani troops into Bahrain. 

Early 2011 Observations of Iranian Involvement in Bahrain

The following is based largely on the author’s on ground experience in Bahrain during the late 2010 – early 2011 timeframe.

Disclaimer: All subsequent thoughts, experiences, citations, or opinions are comprised entirely from unclassified sources, are derived solely from the author, and do not represent the official positions or opinions of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Kingdom of Bahrain.

On 17 December 2010, an unremarkable fruit and vegetable vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi attempted suicide through self-immolation[44] in response to the perceived system of oppression set forth by the Tunisian government. Within hours of this event, protests had begun in Tunisia and steadily gained traction over the following week. Former Tunisian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, began to realize that the unrest was spiraling out of control and attempted a series of remediations to include visiting Bouazizi in the hospital[45] and having the officer that accosted Bouazizi on the day he attempted suicide arrested.[46] These measures, of course, failed to quell Tunisia’s popular unrest; Bouazizi died of his injuries on 4 January 2011 and, a mere ten days later, President Ben Ali fled the country with his family.[47]

The Tunisian revolution quickly spread throughout North Africa and eastward towards Southwest Asia, resulting in the overthrow of governments, civil war, major protests, and sustained civil disorder in several other countries, some of the more notable of which include Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain.[48] Whereas the 14 February 2011 “Day of Rage” in Bahrain is often referenced as the first day of Bahrain’s uprising, there was a substantial period of preparation and key events that occurred in the January timeframe that would ultimately enable the necessary conditions for the nation’s Shia uprising.

Beginning in mid-January, the Bahraini Ministry of Interior (MOI)[49] reported an unusual uptick in social disorder, vandalism, and inflammatory rhetoric originating from Shi’ite mosques throughout the nation. The MOI was quick to assign blame to Iranian agents and Hezbollah operatives; of note, it is typical of military and police forces both in Bahrain and the GCC at large to attribute any sort of societal unrest within their borders to Iranian instigators. Such attribution is often a result of overt discrimination against the Shia people, a preference towards maintaining the status quo in favor of the Sunni minority, and a resounding paranoia (and perhaps fear) of the nation of Iran and the capability of Iran’s intelligence community, IRGC Qods Forces, and sub-state proxies. This particular accusation at this period in time, however, was supported factually by noticeable instances of anti-regime radio messaging, talks of protest and change via social media forums, and a Shi’ite population that appeared to be slowly arming itself and engaging in policing functions within heavily populated Shia neighborhoods.

Advisor to the Bahraini King for Diplomatic Affairs, Dr. Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, cited before the United Nations on 25 September 2013 that “The kingdom of Bahrain has been suffering for a long time from the Iranian interference in its internal affairs. There are multiple TV channels that are under Iranian influence, along with a number of radio stations, newspapers and media institutions that are affiliated with Iran.”[50] Dr. Ghaffar’s accusation against Iran was particularly applicable in Bahrain during the January – early February 2011 timeframe. Native Arabic and Farsi speakers reported hearing both on the radio and amongst Shi’ite mosques calls from Iran encouraging Bahrain’s disparaged Shia population to conduct demonstrations in the streets and to begin policing their own neighborhoods in preparation for an inevitable conflict with the ruling Sunni majority. This public messaging campaign within Bahrain coincided with public support for continued unrest from Iranian political circles. Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei was cited as saying, “the uprising of the people of Bahrain is essentially the same as the uprising of the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen… the people of Bahrain only want free elections. Is this too much to expect?”[51]

In addition to public messaging via radio and political statements, there is evidence to suggest that Iran exacerbated anti-regime sentiments within Bahrain using social media platforms. Post-analysis of the Internet’s role throughout the duration of the Arab Spring has exemplified the importance of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and weblogs for popular mobilization.[52] Like other populations in countries affected by the Arab Spring, Bahraini Shi’ites heavily relied on social media to organize protests, share news about security force movements, and bring their message to wider audiences throughout the world. Realizing the role that social media was playing in terms of popular mobilization, Bahraini security forces were quick to shut down access to popular social media forums by filtering key websites and, in many cases, shutting down Internet access in Shia concentrated regions. Figure 5[53] demonstrates number of clicks on popular social media URLs by the thousands during the January – April 2011 timeframe.

Note how activity skyrocketed after the 14 February 2011 Day of Rage and then quickly plummeted after security forces raided the Pearl Roundabout. Bahraini government officials, through working with popular state-owned telecommunications company, Batelco, managed to effectively blackout both Internet and cell phone communications throughout key portions of the island.

Despite the communications blackouts, social media support and coordination continued to be prevalent. Even more oddly, social media postings to include activity reports and photos of alleged government atrocities continued to be posted despite the communications blackout. Bahraini security forces were quick to analyze the source of these postings and concluded, per their usual modus operandi, that the Iranians were the source of the ongoing “false allegations” and activity reports. At the time, U.S. forces on ground had no way to verify these claims. Analysis conducted throughout the following year, however, suggests that these allegations may have been true. Note figure 6’s[54] illustration of social media activity in terms of percentage of clicks originating from within the country of unrest, within the region, and outside of the region.

Note Bahrain’s regional social media activity compared to other countries that experienced significant civil disorder during the Arab Spring; Bahrain’s regional click activity is over three times that of any other country. In regards to origin of regional activity, it is unlikely that these “regional clicks” were occurring in nearby GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, or Kuwait, as these nations were simultaneously exercising Internet filtering in preemption of possible civil disorder within their own borders. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that the most logical explanation is that regional activity was coming from Iran or Iranian regional Internet Protocol (IP) proxies, which in turn gives credence to Bahrain’s security forces regarding their claims of Iranian sourced social media postings claiming to document nefarious activities.

The February 14th Day of Rage and the subsequent governmental response spurred the more radical sects of Bahrain’s Shi’ite population to take up arms. In particular, Bahraini military forces had begun to report armed patrols, check points, and periodic attacks against perceived outsider threats, i.e., those who were not from that specific neighborhood. These reports tended to originate from highly populated Shi’ite neighborhoods to include Sitra, Sanabis, al-Qurayyah, Hamala, and Sadad (note figure 7[55] for specific locations).

A notable exception was the neighborhood of Riffa, which is actually a Sunni majority neighborhood that had developed a widely spread perception that they were under siege by Iranian inspired Shia agitators and Hezbollah agents. Spot reports suggested that armed individuals possessed small arms to include pistols, rifles, shotguns, and, in many cases, melee weapons such as machetes, baseball bats, wooden planks, and swords.

The timeframe following the Day of Rage was characterized by increasing escalation of tensions at the Pearl Roundabout and massive marches and demonstrations throughout the streets. While these demonstrations where well-documented by regional and international media sources on ground, these same media sources failed to document the series of paramilitary activities and weapons smuggling operations being undertaken by Shi’ite militants. Increasingly complex improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were being employed by Bahraini resistance movements as Bahrain’s military and LEF forces has begun to employ violent measures against protestors. The first attacks appeared to be vehicle born IEDs that were directed against Bahraini government buildings, checkpoints, and other property. These occurred during the February timeframe as protests within the island nation had become increasingly prevalent. These sorts of attacks were then escalated following the military intervention of the GCC led by Saudi Arabia and the demolishing of the Pearl Roundabout.

On March 14th, 2011, Saudi Arabia and other GCC partners announced that they would be sending a “peacekeeping” force to Bahrain in order to counter Iranian proxies and help restore calm within the island nation.[56] The Peninsula Shield Force, a GCC collaborative military force made up GCC nations to include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, and Oman,[57] conducted a sweeping intervention and quickly quelled the majority of violent protests within Bahrain. Most press reporting indicated that the troops were comprised solely of GCC forces to include 1,200 personnel from Saudi Arabia and another 800 from UAE.[58] This, however, was not the full extent of foreign military intervention into Bahrain’s internal security dynamic. Pakistani troops, who have a long history of supporting GCC military forces in the realms of military training and tactics, were brought into Bahrain in order to bolster the nation’s internal security capacity. Open source indicates that approximately 2,500 Pakistani service members contributed to Bahrain’s national guard capacity.[59] In addition, Bahraini military sources indicated that Pakistani commandos were often used in situations where the government of Bahrain needed to maintain plausible deniability of involvement in certain actions. This information was never reported on in mainstream media, however, is corroborated by on-ground reports via social media and blog forums. One blog states that “some of the suppressing seems to have been done by Pakistani mercenaries (there is an elite battalion of ex-Pakistani commandos who constitute a special security force in Bahrain). There are also rumors that regular Pakistani troops were used…”[60]

At the behest of the Peninsula Shield Force, the government of Bahrain implemented a decision to forcibly remove protestors as the Pearl Roundabout on March 16th, 2011, which was followed two days later by the dismantling and literal obliteration from Bahraini history of the Pearl Roundabout as a symbol of Shia resistance.[61] While this event is widely considered to mark the end of Bahraini protest activity, in reality it inspired insurgent-like behavior from militant Shias who were committed to changing Bahrain’s system of governance.

After the Pearl Roundabout Destruction and an Assessment of the Future

The occupation of the Peninsula Shield Force and destruction of the Pearl Roundabout managed to drastically discourage and reduce large-scale protest activity, however, militant Shi’ite groups continued to carry on their efforts in a more clandestine manner. The decision to destroy the Roundabout forced Shia agitators to reassemble in a more decentralized manner, primarily relying on impromptu mosques[62] as centers for assembly, planning, and dispersal of arms. Incidents of violence in the form of small arms fire and explosions had become more common. Mid-2011 on-ground reports from MOI forces suggested that militant Shia factions had begun to assemble IED making materials within various properties throughout densely populated Shia neighborhoods. One particular raid of an impromptu mosque in the densely Shia populated neighborhood of Sitra revealed complex IED making materials that, according to Bahraini LEF forensics teams, resembled the materials used during the height of anti-coalition violence in Iraq during OIF. Bahraini LEF were quick to attribute the technical similarities to Iranian IRGC Qods Forces, though there was never any hard evidence to prove that this was the case.

It is relevant to note, however, that Bahrain has since experienced several attacks, training efforts, financing schemes, and smuggling attempts of relatively high complexity, many of which are suspected to have Iranian origins. In the early December 2011 timeframe, a bomb was placed underneath a vehicle 50 meters away from the British Embassy in Manama, which is assessed by many to be a response to the expulsion of Iranian diplomatic staff members from Britain the week prior.[63] In early 2013, a joint Bahrain-Oman intelligence operation claimed to have uncovered evidence of an eight-man cell operating in Bahrain that was responsible for engaging in financing efforts, recruiting, information gathering, and finding places to store weapons in Bahrain.[64] Evidence suggests that smuggling operations via Bahrain’s shipping channels have also steadily been on the rise. In December 2013, Bahraini authorities claimed to have seized a boat of Iranian origins off its shores containing hand grenades, fuses, C4, and TNT.[65]

In an effort to disguise the above activities, Shia militants in Bahrain often used impromptu mosques in order to escape detection and assemble in secret. Bahraini intelligence services quickly discovered that the impromptu mosques were being used as logistical nodes for militant Shia efforts and have since that time engaged in a campaign of systematically targeting these pseudo religious sites. Despite the tactical advantages this yields to Bahraini LEF, the media has been quick to condemn the destruction of these sites,[66] which has caused subsequent condemnation within diplomatic channels. To this day, Bahraini LEF continue to carry out aggressive operations against Shia militants with suspected Iranian ties; alternatively, Iran continues to wage its efforts through diplomatic, political, and possible clandestine military means.

Events over the last three years and the current instability throughout Southwest Asia imply an uncertain future for the Kingdom of Bahrain. Iran will likely continue its efforts of promoting internal subterfuge in an attempt to gain a strategic foothold in the Gulf while simultaneously denying the same to the United States and Saudi Arabia. However, current events in Iraq to include the apparent shortcomings of the Shi’ite dominated Maliki government and the aggressive push by ISIL are likely to dominate the Iranian leadership’s attention in terms of their primary external proxy efforts, leaving Bahrain on the backburner for now.

Even without a focused effort from Iran, Bahrain’s problematic political situation, inefficient policies, and demographic divide will likely result in an unsustainable situation for its Sunni-led government. Bahrain’s oil reserves are lacking compared to its GCC counterparts, which has caused the island nation to seek other mechanisms to grow and sustain national wealth. Despite these efforts, inefficient policies have caused Bahrain to experience exacerbated fiscal drain relative to the rest of the GCC (note figure 8[67]), which in turn contributes to the nation’s instability. Furthermore, Bahrain’s Shi’ite population is projected to grow at a rate that outpaces many of the fastest growing majority-Muslim nations, implying the possibility that Bahrain’s Sunni-led government will experience increased sectarian pressures in the future (note figure 9[68]).

These problems, by their very nature, are systemic and over the long-run have the effect of eroding even the most experienced and well-supported autocracies. Bahrain is no exception – making it likely that the nation’s current policies will prove unsustainable for a minority Sunni ruling party who, despite their best efforts, is on the precipice of being overrun by a frustrated, increasingly violent, and Iranian-supported Shia majority.

End Notes

[1] Matthew Levitt, (2011) “Hezbollah: Party of Fraud – How Hezbollah Uses Crime to Finance its Operations,” Foreign Affairs, (accessed 2 Jul. 2014).

[2] Anthony Cordesman, et al., (2013) “The Gulf Military Balance Volume III: The Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, v.

[3] Anthony Cordesman & Jose Ramos, (2008) “Sadr and the Mahdi Army: Evolution, Capabilities, and a New Direction,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, (Washington, DC: CSIS), 3.

[4] Amir Abdallah, “Iran deploys military to fight Sunni ISIL insurgents in Iraq,”, (accessed 2 Jul. 2014).

[5] Kevin Downs, (2012) “A Theoretical Analysis of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry in Bahrain,” Journal of Politics & International Studies, Vol. 8, 227.

[6] Members include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, and Oman.

[7] Geneive Abdo, (2013) “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide,” The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, (Washington, DC: Brookings), 5.

[8] Ibid., p. 8.

[9] U.S. Navy, (2014) “U.S. 5th Fleet – U.S. Naval Forces Central Command,” United States Navy, (accessed 3 Jul. 2014).

[10] An elite security force designed to rapidly respond to threats to US government interests in the region.

[11] Sami G. Hajjar, (2002) U.S. Military Presence in the Gulf: Challenges and Prospects, (Virginia: Army War College), 27.

[12] Gulf Daily News, (2010) “US missiles for Bahrain?” Gulf Daily News, (accessed 3 Jul. 2014).

[13] AIR-1.0 Public Affairs, (2012) “Aviation Week honors P-3 simulation team for IT/Electronics achievement,” Naval Air systems Command, (accessed 3 Jul. 2014).

[14] SRATFOR, (20120) “Map of Shi’ite Islam Concentration in Saudi Arabia,” STRATFOR Global Intelligence, (accessed 3 Jul. 2014).

[15] Strategic Defence Intelligence, (2014) “Patriot Missile Long-Range Air-Defence System, United States of America,”, (accessed 4 Jul. 2014).

[16] “Map showing the maximum range of the U.S. Patriot Missile Battery Radar,” 26o11’33’’ and 50o31’29’’, Google Earth.

[17] Justin Gengler, (2011) “How Radical are Bahrain’s Shia? The Real Source of Unrest in the Kingdom,” Foreign Affairs, (accessed 7 Jul. 2014).

[18] George Friedman, (2011) “Bahrain and the Battle Between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Geopolitical Weekly, (accessed 7 Jul. 2014).

[19] Graham Fuller & Rend Francke, (1999) The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims, (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 121.

[20] Amiz Nanji & Farhad Daftary, (2007) “What is Shi’a Islam?” The Institute of Ismaili Studies, (London, UK: Institute of Ismaili Studies), 8.

[21] Geneive Abdo, (2013) “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide,” The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, (Washington, DC: Brookings), 9.

[22] Jadaliyya Reports, (2013) “Gerrymandering in Bahrain: Twenty-One Persons, One Vote,” Jadaliyya جدلية, (accessed 7 Jul. 2014).

[24] Geneive Abdo, (2013) “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide,” The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, (Washington, DC: Brookings), 10.

[25] Hasan Tariq Alhasan, (2011) “The Role of Iran in the Failed Coup of 1981: The IFLB in Bahrain,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 65, No. 3, 603-17.

[26] Kevin Downs, (2012) “A Theoretical Analysis of the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry in Bahrain,” Journal of Politics & International Studies, Vol. 8, 214.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Claire Beaugrand, (2010) “The Return of the Bahraini Exiles (2001-2006): The Impact of the Ostracization Experience on the Opposition’s Restructuring, Mapping Middle Eastern and North African Diasporas, BRISMES Annual Conference, (London, UK: University of Leeds), 5.

[30] Kenneth Katzman, (2011) “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, (Washington, DC: GPO), 2.

[31] Scott Modell & David Asher, (2013) “Pushback: Counter the Iran Action Network,” Center for a New American Security, (Washington, DC: CNAS), 17.

[32] Toby Matthiesen, (2011) “The History of Hizbullah Al-hijaz,” Arabia Today, (accessed 8 Jul. 2014).

[33] The Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, (2013) “Bahrain as a Target Preferred by Iran for Terrorism and Subversion,” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, (Israel: IDF), 14.

[34] Ibid.

[35] The Israeli Intelligence & Heritage Commemoration Center, (2013) “Bahrain as a Target Preferred by Iran for Terrorism and Subversion,” The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, (Israel: IDF), 15.

[36] Sarah Beckerman, (2014) “Bahrain,” The National Democratic Institute, (accessed 8 Jul. 2014).

[37] The equivalent to the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives

[38] Official Nuwab Web Page of Bahrain, (2014) “House of Representatives >> members of the Board,” (accessed 8 Jul. 2014).

[39] Geneive Abdo, (2013) “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide,” The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, (Washington, DC: Brookings), 12.

[40] Claire Beaugrand, (2010) “The Return of the Bahraini Exiles (2001-2006): The Impact of the Ostracization Experience on the Opposition’s Restructuring, Mapping Middle Eastern and North African Diasporas, BRISMES Annual Conference, (London, UK: University of Leeds), 6.

[41] Ali Alfoneh, (2012) “Between Reform and Revolution: Sheikh Qassim, the Bahraini Shi’a, and Iran,” American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, No.4, (Washington, DC: AEI), 7.

[42] Kenneth Katzman, (2011) “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, (Washington, DC: GPO), 3.

[43] The central hub and organization center for Bahraini civil unrest in the early 2011 timeframe.

[44] Yasmine Ryan, (2011) “The tragic life of a street vendor,” Al Jazeera, (accessed 10 Jul. 2014).

[45] Ibid.

[46] Kareem Fahim, (2011) Slap to a Man’s Pride Set Off Tumult in Tunisia,” The New York Times, (accessed 10 Jul. 2014).

[47] Ibid.

[48] Seth Jones, (2013) “The Mirage of the Arab Spring: Deal With the Region You Have, Not the Region You Want,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 92, No. 1, 55-64.

[49] The name for Bahrain’s public security forces and special security forces.

[50] Yasser al-Chazli, (2013) “Adviser to Bahrain king: GCC basis of balance in region,” Al-Monitor, (accessed 12 Jul. 2014).

[51] Hanif Zarrabi-Kashani, (2014) “Iran and the Arab Spring: Then and Now,”, (accessed 12 Jul. 2014).

[52] Maha Taki & Lorenzo Coretti (2013) “The role of social media in the Arab uprisings – past and present,” Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 1.

[53] Sean Aday, et al., (2012) “New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring,” United States Institute of Peace, (Washington, DC: USIP), 12.

[54] Sean Aday, et al., (2012) “New Media and Conflict After the Arab Spring,” United States Institute of Peace, (Washington, DC: USIP), 13.

[55] “Map showing Bahraini neighborhoods where citizens conducted armed patrols,” 26o03’23’’ and 50o32’51’’, Google Earth.

[56] Ethan Bronner & Michael Slackman, (2011) “Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest,” The New York Times, (accessed 1 Aug 2014).

[57] Karen Young, (2013) “The Emerging Interventionists of the GCC,” LSE Middle East Centre, (London, UK: Long School of Economics), 13.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Mujib Mashal, (2011) “Pakistani troops aid Bahrain’s crackdown,” Al-Jazeera, (accessed 1 Aug 2014).

[60] Omar Khattab, (2011) “The Shia genocide in Bahrain shows Islam’s replacement by Wahhabism,” Let Us Build Pakistan, (accessed 1 Aug 2014).

[61] Martin Chulov, (2011) “Bahrain destroys Pearl roundabout,” The Guardian, (accessed 1 Aug 2014).

[62] Shia agitators in Bahrain during the 2011 uprising often designated people’s homes and/or social structures as “mosques” in order to avoid detection and military assault against their planning efforts.

[63] Loveday Morris, (2011) “Bomb blast outside UK embassy in Bahrain,” The Independent, (accessed 1 Aug 2014).

[64] Frank Gardner, (2013) “Iran ‘set up Bahrain militant cell,’” BBC News Middle East, (accessed 3 Aug 2014).

[65] Agence France Presse, (2013) “Bahrain says it seized Iranian, Syrian explosives,” The Daily Star, (accessed 3 Aug 2014).

[66] Al-Wefaq Source, (2011) “Bahrain targets Shia religious sites,” Al-Jazeera, (accessed 1 Aug 2014).

[67] M.R. Raghu & Mai Sartawi, (2012) “GCC Demographic Shift: Intergenerational risk-transfer at play,” Kuwait Financial Centre, (Safat, Kuwait: Markaz), 12.

[68] Luis Lugo, et al., (2011) “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections from 2010-2030,” Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center), 154.


About the Author(s)

Jason Rivera is a Captain in the U.S. Army National Guard, a Senior Consultant with Deloitte Consulting LLP, and possesses a M.A. from Georgetown University in Security Studies, a M.A. from the University of Oklahoma in Economics, and two B.A. degrees in Political Science and Economics from the University of Nevada – Las Vegas.