Could Bahrain — long a stalwart U.S. ally, home to 7,000 American military personnel and the Navy’s Fifth Fleet — fall under Iranian sway? As long as the island country’s Sunni rulers persist in suppressing the Shi’ite-dominated domestic opposition movement, it widens the kind of split that Tehran has exploited elsewhere across the region. It’s time for the Trump administration to tell the Bahraini ruling family to ease off.
Bahrain has long had a strong domestic opposition movement that crosses sectarian boundaries and includes all socioeconomic backgrounds. The ruling al-Khalifa family, despite redefining itself as a constitutional monarchy under the Kingdom’s 2002 Constitution, functions closer to an absolute monarchy, where King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa is the center of all political life and the elected government (Council of Representatives) lacks any real power to check his decisions. In addition, decades of a political system designed to favor Sunni elites close to the ruling family has politically and economically marginalized many Bahrainis – particularly Shi’as, who make up 70 percent of the country’s population, but also Sunni groups and secularist movements stemming from the middle class and business community. In 2011, the pro-democracy “Arab Spring” uprisings shook the Kingdom, forcing a three-month state of emergency and the intervention of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces.
Despite successive rounds of dialogue, confidence-building measures, and various constitutional amendments, promised reforms have not materialized. Instead, King Hamad and his government anti-reformers have framed the pro-democracy movement as a security issue, and have tried to crush the opposition by imprisoning its leaders, disbanding its groups, and using other repressive tactics. Just this month, the Bahraini parliament passed a bill that bans leaders and members of dissolved political associations from standing in elections. Furthermore, the Bahraini court denaturalized 115 activists simultaneously, giving 53 of them life sentences on terrorism-related charges.
These efforts have undermined support for the monarchy. While the 2011 uprising was mostly a call for reform, rather than regime change, the government’s recent human rights abuses and lack of political reform have empowered underground radical groups who call for the regime’s disintegration. Making matters worse, the Bahraini government dissolved Wefaq and Waad, the most prominent of the moderate opposition groups, for allegedly facilitating terrorism and violence, leaving many dissenters without a real option for peaceful political resistance. The Bahraini opposition is therefore split between radical groups, who perpetrate attacks against security officials and refuse any negotiations with the government, and a few shrinking moderate groups, whose attempts at formal political and peaceful opposition have been met with force.
The situation has some policymakers worrying about a widening door to increased Iranian influence. Iranian meddling in Bahraini domestic politics would be nothing new. The country’s Sunni-Shi’a tensions trace back to the eighteenth century when the Al-Khalifa family overthrew the existing Persian rulers to establish the present-day monarchy. To this day, Bahrain’s Shi’a population — and Iran itself — both consider themselves the rightful leaders of the island country. To be sure, few Bahrainis envision placing themselves under Iranian rule, and indeed, a 1971 UN-sponsored plebiscite showed overwhelming opposition to the idea.
The past decade’s repression and unrest have provided Iran a wider fault line through which to achieve its long-held goal of gaining influence in the Kingdom. After 2011, Iran made contact with radical opposition groups in an attempt to woo Bahrainis and build a Shi’a community loyal to Iran. As a result, some opposition leaders – such as those of the Ashtar Brigades and other radical offshoots – traveled to Iran and Iraq to receive training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, bringing new knowledge home to Bahrain. Many brought home Iranian-made weapons. At first, these were largely crude bomb making materials, put to use in 23 bombing attacks on Bahraini security forces between 2013 and 2015, which left 14 dead and 25 injured. But as the smuggled weaponry has evolved – for example, more recent IEDs have been remote-controlled – the radical opposition groups increased their attacks, which last year claimed seven dead and 24 wounded. Iran’s rhetoric regarding the Bahraini government has escalated as well. After Bahrain denaturalized the Shi’a cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim in 2016, IRGC head General Qassem Soleimani said that the action would “leave people with no other option but the toppling of the regime in armed resistance” and could “set the region on fire.”
If Bahrain fractures, it would not only threaten the Gulf’s other anti-Iranian governments, but would jeopardize U.S. interests in the region. For the United States, the Kingdom plays a crucial role in maintaining stability in the Gulf and is a valued partner in the defeat-ISIS campaign, taking a lead role in countering ISIS’s financial network. Most notably, Bahrain is home to the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is essential to maintaining the free flow of commerce and energy resources in and around the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea; the island itself is a staging ground for critical anti-piracy operations. As tensions escalate, a deteriorating security situation in the country may force the U.S. to consider an alternative location for its naval headquarters in the Gulf.
While relative stability has returned to Bahrain, the 2011 uprisings that shook the Kingdom were the most dangerous it had seen in its short history and opposition violence remains disturbingly present. The Trump administration should make clear to King Hamad and his inner circle that the dissolution of political societies and expulsion of all dissenters are unhelpful to political reconciliation, and that the only way to achieve full long-term security and stability is holistic reform. This is not to say that the U.S. should cease equipping Bahrain with the military tools and support necessary to counter Iran and other existential threats— e.g., last year’s $4 billion sale of F-16s and patrol boats. Rather, in order to preserve the Kingdom as a formidable ally and deter the pending Iranian threat, the Trump administration must urge the King to pursue real political and economic reform in line with the recommendations of the Bahraini moderate opposition, while it still exists. By addressing the domestic issue, the Trump administration can make large steps towards solving the bigger threat posed by Iran.