Relations between two neighboring countries — Bahrain and Iran have historically been complex and traditionally “prone to some degree of confrontation”. Of particular importance to them are the territorial and ethno-confessional factors. Under the Shah’s regime, Tehran repeatedly formally made claims on Bahrain. After the victory in Iran in 1979 of the Islamic Revolution, Tehran took a course to support the Bahraini Shiite opposition, including its radical segment. This was largely facilitated by the fact that the majority of the population of Bahrain has historically been Shiites (approximately 70-75%), some of which have Iranian roots. In addition, on the one hand, the local Shiite community has been under the spiritual and political influence of Iran for centuries, and on the other hand, it has been oppressed by the Sunni dynasty of Al Khalifa, ruling in the archipelago, in every possible way.
The Bahraini authorities in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s regularly accused Tehran of interfering in the country’s internal affairs and supporting the Shiite opposition, which had the most negative effect on interstate relations. In 1996, with the mediation of Syria, Manama and Tehran agreed to normalize relations and stop mutual hostile propaganda campaigns. Tehran has officially refused to continue to provide any support for Shiite opposition groups in Bahrain. In 1999, Bahrain and Iran completely restored diplomatic relations, and commissions were created to revive bilateral political and economic ties. At the same time, on the part of Iranian officials, although not of the highest level, as well as in the Iranian press, statements have repeatedly been made that Bahrain cannot be considered as a sovereign state, because “it must rejoin Iran”, that “Bahrain belongs to Iran”. Such statements provoked sharp rejection and condemnation by the Bahraini leadership. At the same time, the government of Bahrain, not wanting to worsen relations with its northern neighbor, sought not to focus on such Iranian statements. Tehran, at a high level, emphasized that the words of Iranian officials “were misinterpreted”, assured that such statements “in no way affect the sovereignty of Bahrain and its independence”, and Iran is making efforts to develop good neighborly relations with the Arabian state. However, Iranian statements reinforced the distrust and fears of the leadership of Bahrain regarding the true intentions of Tehran.
In early 2011, Bahraini-Iranian relations sharply escalated. The leadership of the island kingdom clearly hinted that Iran could support the massive anti-government protests that broke out in the country in February 2011. At the same time, a number of leaders of the Bahraini Shiite opposition tried to convince the authorities that they did not maintain ties with Tehran, as this might discredit them. It should be noted that, according to a number of American experts, Iran’s spiritual influence in Bahrain is currently limited, because the Bahraini Shiites are more focused not on Iranian, but on Iraqi spiritual centers in Najaf and Karbala. However, the Bahrain authorities fear Iran’s actions to establish closer ties with the local Shiite opposition, taking into account the example of the same Iraq, where Iran actively intervenes in the internal affairs of a neighboring country.
As regards Iran’s position, since the beginning of the mass protests of the Bahraini opposition, in Tehran they have fiercely opposed their force suppression. The Iranian leadership very sensitively perceived the entry of Saudi troops into the kingdom in the spring of 2011, calling it an “unacceptable” step. Tehran believes that the victory of opponents of the current regime in Bahrain can be an obvious confirmation of the correctness of the ideas of the Islamic revolution in the Iranian pattern.
In the following years, relations between Bahrain and Iran were hostile and were repeatedly aggravated. Often, it came to recalling the Bahraini ambassador from Tehran “for consultations” and declaring Iranian senior diplomats persona non grata in the kingdom. The last time this happened in January 2016 was initiated by Bahrain, and to date, diplomatic relations between the two countries have not been restored.
In Manama, Tehran is regularly accused of interfering in the internal affairs of the kingdom, “attempts to sow inter-religious turmoil”. Iran is also accused of setting up training camps for terrorists, smuggling weapons and explosives. From time to time, Bahraini authorities have sharply criticized the statements of Iranian officials, whom they call hostile to the ruling regime in Manama. Such actions, according to Bahrain, “contribute to the destabilization of the situation in the kingdom and the region”. Bahraini leaders accuse Iran of actively and constantly interfering in the internal affairs of their Arab neighbors, of supporting Hezbollah-type terrorist organizations, of militants from the Iranian IRGC fighting in Arab countries, in Syria and Iraq, in supporting Yemeni Hussites.
The Bahrain side believes that the inability to improve relations with Iran is due to Tehran’s fault, and Bahrain’s steps in this direction “come up against a neighbor’s unwillingness to support them, or that it creates a new problem”. Manama sees the main reason for such Iranian behavior in Tehran’s desire for regional domination, and one of the tools to achieve this is the confessional factor, since Iran is “trying to exploit the confessional heterogeneity of Bahrain”. According to the words of the Kingdom’s Foreign Minister, H. Al Khalifa, “they (Iranians) are trying to enter this door. But we see the whole danger of this, and do not allow them to engage in terror, they must change their policies, stop exporting the revolution, they perverted the concept of “people’s revolution”, which won in Iran in 1979. The revolution is not a commodity for export. The revolution has a national character, and it must take place in their own country”. The minister also emphasized that the Islamic Republic “is not pursuing the policies that its President Rouhani proclaims”. “Iran must remain faithful to the idea of stability, maintaining peace and security, and respect for the rights and interests of all countries of the region and the global space”, the Kingdom’s Foreign Ministry said in August 2019, noting that Tehran “needs to take a more balanced and constructive position in regional agenda”.
Iran, positioning itself as the defender of all oppressed peoples, especially the Shiites of the region, regularly criticizes the policies of the ruling regime in Bahrain, expresses solidarity with the Shiites of the island kingdom. Tehran has declared Iranian concern about the development of the political situation in Bahrain, and has called on the government in Manama to negotiate with the opposition, expressed the desire that the Bahraini authorities “exclude extremists from the administrative system and find a way to compromise with their own people in a comprehensive national dialogue”. At the same time, Iran and its ally Lebanese Hezbollah deny any involvement in the political struggle in Bahrain and interference in the internal affairs of this country. Tehran also calls on the government of Bahrain to abandon anti-Iranian steps and provocations and not play the role of “supply agent for the fulfillment of the desires and plans of our common enemies in the region”. Undoubtedly, Iran annoys the establishment of relations between the kingdom and Israel. Tehran claims that control of Bahrain is in the hands of Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, while the United States and the “Zionist regime” are pleased with the actions of their ally.
The Bahrain government is concerned about the buildup of Iranian military capabilities and believes that “the Middle East cannot live with Iran that possesses nuclear weapons”. The Kingdom supported the actions of the administration of US President D. Trump to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran’s Nuclear Program and the sanctions Washington imposed on Tehran in this regard. Other US anti-Iran initiatives find full support in Manama. Thus, Bahrain supported the new strategy adopted by Washington regarding Iran, “with the aim of eliminating the threat of Iran’s policies that undermine security and stability in the region”.
At the same time, Manama declares their desire to normalize relations with Iran, but only after Tehran “takes tangible positive steps and puts an end to meddling in Bahrain’s internal affairs and also adheres to the principles of good neighborliness and mutual respect”.
Institute of the Middle East.
On changes in the military-political situation in the Middle East and North Africa (November 18-24, 2019). Annex.