Bahrain is strategically important and an incredibly diverse country, not only ethnically (with Arabs and those of Persian origin, not to mention South Asians and Filipinos if one includes the expatriate workers), but also religiously: The majority are Shi’ite Muslims, the ruling and more elite class are Sunni Muslims, and there are also a number of Christians and Jewish families, the latter mostly of Iraqi origin centuries ago. The Bahraini ambassador to the United States is Jewish.
Because most of the opposition is Shi’ite, there is concern in American policy circles and among many journalists that a hidden Iranian hand controls the Bahraini opposition. This translates into concern that meaningful reform would usher in a period of Iranian domination.
The issue, however, is far more nuanced. When the British evacuated the region, the United Nations brokered a referendum on Bahrain’s future, and the vast majority—of both Sunni and Shi’ites—chose independence rather than incorporation into Iran. Certainly, the Iranians—who view most of the Persian Gulf, along with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Caucasus as their near-abroad—never truly abandoned their claim. In 2007, Hossein Shariatmadari, whom the Supreme Leader of Iran appointed to edit the Kayhan newspaper and so is read by many Iran analysts as the Supreme Leader’s proxy voice, penned an editorial reasserting Iran’s claim over Bahrain.
That said, most Bahraini Shi’ites are Arab and not Persian, and ethnic divisions matter. Few Arabs like to live under Persian domination regardless of sect. Hence the saying in southern Iraq: “Break the bones of a Persian and sh-t comes out.” Saddam Hussein, however, was in some ways a blessing for the Iranians. Because of Saddam’s oppression of the Iraqi Shi’ites and the tight control he kept over the holy city of Najaf, many Bahraini religious students shifted their study beginning in the 1970s and continuing arguably to the present day away from Najaf and toward Qom, where the Iranians could preach Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision of clerical rule. Just because something is taught, however, does not mean it is believed. Many other Bahraini Shi’ites have been exposed to Iranian influence during pilgrimage, mostly to Mashhad but also to Qom.
Relations, however, are not enough to conclude political influence. The Shi’ite landscape in Bahrain is complex. If traditionally, many Bahraini Shi’ites looked toward Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for their religious guidance, others increasingly look to Ayatollah Khamenei. Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, perhaps the closest thing to a spiritual leader which Lebanese Hezbollah had, also retains followers in Bahrain. While he died in 2010 and, theoretically, Shi’ites must follow a living source of emulation, Fadlallah’s office still retains a vakil who collects religious taxes. Other groups look more toward Ayatollahs Shirazi and Modaressi.
The Iranian government wins a great advantage through its media. Almost everyone I spoke to—taxi drivers, businessmen, and activists—say they listen to Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam service for their news or, when that is jammed, to Voice of Iran. Iran’s Press TV and Sahar are also popular. Government officials also acknowledge the popularity of these services. Here then is another example of the failure of Voice of America (and, for that matter, the BBC) which has not covered the events in Bahrain nearly as often or as completely. Bahrainis, though, are sophisticated, and while they may listen to Iranian channels for news, they are not brainwashed blindly. After all, they recognize that for news about Syria, the Iranian channels are woefully biased, “as biased as VOA is on Bahrain,” as one taxi driver told me. Still, woe be it for the United States to lose the battle of the airwaves.
During my time in Iraq, Iranian influence was clear even if many in the Coalition Provisional Authority, State Department and, indeed, the media did not want to initially believe it. Bahrain does not feel like the parallel. There are not Hezbollah flags, nor are Khamenei or Khomeini’s pictures ever present. That said, I did see worrying signs. Wandering into a religious book store near old Manama, I found posters for sale not only of Isa Qasim, the leading Bahraini cleric, but also of Khamenei, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, and, most worrisome, Imad Mughniyeh, the mastermind of the 2003 attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. My colleague found a CD with Wifaq leader Ali Samad’s speeches set to music and produced by Hezbollah’s al-Manar station. While many Bahrainis deny Isa Qasim follows Khamenei’s concept of clerical rule, Americans and Bahrainis cannot afford to forget that Khomeini swore up and down he had no interest in personal power prior to Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and too many useful idiots in both Iran and the United States accepted his statements at face value.
Shi’ite activists suggested that I had visited a store that was the exception rather than the rule but, not having surveyed other shops in villages, I have no way of knowing. Hopefully, the U.S. embassy has done such a survey but, again, having had no contact with American diplomats, I simply do not know.
Importantly, the Bahraini government’s investigation into last year’s uprising also shows the Iranians were not behind it unlike, for example, the 1981 uprising. Just because the Iranians did not spark the revolt, however, does not mean they will not try to hijack it. Khamenei will give the Friday Prayer sermon in Tehran himself tomorrow—a relative rarity—and he is expected to speak about Bahrain. Many Shi’ites also suggested that they perceive the Americans as supporting the government and some suggested they would accept help wherever they could get it. The perception that Saudi Arabia is playing hardball in Bahrain also makes local Shi’ites susceptible to Iranian influence.
The marches surrounding the anniversary of the Pearl Monument protests will be telling. Aside from Molotov cocktails—which are very much lethal—most of the Bahraini Shi’ites have been unarmed or, at least, have not had guns. Bahrain is an island, and so the government has been better able to stem the flow of illegal weaponry. Many Shi’ites have also sought to embrace non-violence, with varying degrees of success. However, if there is much violence on February 14, many Shi’ites may be more willing to arm themselves in a way that will be detrimental to everyone except, perhaps, Iran.
That said, money can also drive rebellions and fuel revolutions. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders made no secret, in 2008, that they see export of the revolution to be a military phenomenon and not a matter for soft power, as some of the Islamic Republic’s so-called reformists claim. It is not possible for an outside observer to know about the background financing, and that unknown is simply too great to draw firm conclusions without more information. Nevertheless, unrest of this magnitude could not exist without real grievances, and so the question for American policymakers is whether such grievances can be addressed before the Bahraini Shi’ite community is pushed into the Iranian camp, or before even greater Saudi intervention and/or federation–which will bring with it a whole host of other problems.