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What Does the Bahrain Weapons Seizure Mean?

On December 30, Bahraini authorities announced that they had intercepted a ship carrying Iranian explosives and weaponry apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition. According to Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News:

Bahrain has scored a major victory in the fight against terror with the seizure of a huge weapons stash and the arrests of wanted fugitives attempting to flee the country. Seventeen people have been detained in a massive anti-terrorism operation on Saturday and Sunday, in which police confiscated large amounts of weapons and bomb-making material. Iranian-made explosives, Syrian bomb detonators, Kalashnikovs, C-4 explosives, Claymores, hand grenades, a PK machine gun, circuit boards for use in bomb making, armor-piercing explosives, TNT and a raft of other materials used to manufacture bombs were discovered. Some of the arms were seized in one of Bahrain’s biggest weapons hauls at sea as they were being smuggled here, apparently from Iraq. Others were found during a raid on an illegal weapons depot near the Budaiya Highway, while 13 of those arrested were wanted fugitives attempting to flee Bahrain on a high-speed boat heading north.

The Iranian government, for its part, fiercely rejected the Bahraini accusations. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for African and Arab affairs, dismissed the Bahraini charges, and said that Bahrain had no one to blame but itself for its own domestic woes.

Make no mistake: Bahraini Shi’ites have real grievances which have nothing to do with Iran. Ninety-five percent of unemployed Bahrainis are Shi’ites, and they face discrimination in almost every sector. And while Iran was neck-deep in the 1981 coup plot against the Bahraini royal family (as per the materials and publications of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which are housed at the Library of Congress), few Bahraini Shi’ites knowingly carry water for Iran. As many Bahraini Shi’ites point out, they had every opportunity to vote for unity with Iran during the UN-sponsored referendum in 1970, but chose independence. Many Bahrainis want only reform, but have grown frustrated by a Bahraini king who prefers recreation over government, and a prime minister who believes wielding an iron fist and Saudi backing trumps reform.

As the smallest Arab state and the Arab world’s only island nation, Bahrain’s borders have also traditionally been easiest to control. Smuggling weaponry into Bahrain is no easy feat. While the Bahraini opposition are not as non-violent as they profess (Molotov cocktails are hardly tools of the non-violent), they have apparently maintained their distance from all but Iranian media and, if the Bahraini government is to be believed, from financial assistance siphoned from the interest upon Iranian accounts in Bahraini banks and charitable donations provided by the offices of Iran- and Iraq-based ayatollahs.

If this weapons seizure is true—and, despite Iranian denials, it seems far-fetched that it is fake—then it suggests a number of worrisome things for 2014.

First, despite hope in Western capitals that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election matters, it seems the Islamic Republic—or at least its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)—are resurgent and bent on taking the constitutionally-mandated “export of revolution” to a new level. With Iran resurgent in Syria and still overwhelmingly influential in Iraq (and Iraqi Kurdistan), it seems that Tehran seeks to be turning its attention to its proxy war against Saudi Arabia on other fronts.

The United States should also be concerned, given the decades-long partnership between the Bahraini government and the United States. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and American servicemen genuinely like the kingdom and its people, who are known throughout the Persian Gulf for their friendliness. The Bahraini opposition, for its part, determinedly has not targeted Americans or engaged in gratuitous anti-Americanism, although some opposition figures who say nice thing about the United States in English have told the Iranian press in Persian that expulsion of the Americans will be the first order of business should the opposition be victorious.

It behooves the Bahraini opposition to be especially careful if Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani and the IRGC seek to open a new chapter in the Bahraini unrest, for any attempt by Iran to co-opt the movement will delegitimize the Bahraini opposition and their struggle for reform for decades to come. At the same time, let us hope that President Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry understand just how much remains at stake in the Middle East, and the damage that will occur to U.S. interests should they continue to allow American influence to hemorrhage. 


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