Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
The political news emanating from the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain has come fast and frequent this summer, with a series of actions taken by the courts, Parliament, and security forces effectively reshaping the formal political landscape of the country. These actions have dealt perhaps the final blow to the strategy set in the early years of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s reign, when opposition politicians were invited back from exile, the Parliament re-established, and the economy reshaped to better integrate a Shia community disproportionately dependent on the private sector for employment.
Today the Shia Islamist coalition that emerged within the national bargain of the 2001 National Action Charter is bereft: its political leader jailed, its spiritual leader stripped of his Bahraini citizenship, and its formal dissolution ordered and executed in mere weeks. What prompted the government to deliver this coup de grace to an already subdued opposition? And what are the implications for regional politics and U.S. interests?
The End of Al-Wefaq
In the past few months, the Bahraini government eliminated all ambiguity in its position toward the Shia Islamist opposition. In May, a Bahraini appeals court upped the sentence of al-Wefaq Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman from four to nine years. In June, the government suspended the license of al-Wefaq – accusing it of creating “an environment for terrorism, extremism and violence.” About a week later the government revoked the citizenship of al-Wefaq’s spiritual leader and Bahrain’s leading Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassem, on charges of exploiting “the religious pulpit for political purposes [and] to serve foreign interests.” And on July 17, the Bahraini courts finalized the deed by dissolving al-Wefaq, a political society that once held nearly half the seats in Bahrain’s elected Chamber of Deputies.
The campaign against the Shia opposition was undertaken within the legal framework of new amendments to the political society law ordering the separation of religion and politics and barring clerics from the Parliament. Thus far, the law has been exclusively applied to the Shia Islamist opposition. In their stead, the government is relying on a new cross-sectarian “non-political” National Participation parliamentary bloc that reliably votes in favor of government policies. It is also cultivating a new generation of politicians from among leading Shia families that served as al-Khalifa allies since the earliest days of the monarchy. At the same time, new parliamentary internal rules place a higher bar for the questioning of government ministers, hindering the new powers afforded the Parliament through constitutional amendments of 2012. These legal measures, building upon earlier ones banning political rallies and accompanied by an intensified round of de-naturalizations and arrests of Shia religious leaders and nonclerical political activists, serve to confine political activity to a Parliament more tightly controlled through restrictions on both participation and oversight.
The escalation against an opposition already battered by arrests and constrained by new laws and security measures has perplexed many, including U.S. officials. Yet, in important ways the moves simply complete a political trajectory begun after the failure of the political negotiations with the legal political societies in the midst of the uprising of 2011, and the eclipse of Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa by royal rivals centered in the security services and royal court. The prevailing mindset in Bahrain’s leadership assumes the pro-Iranian leaning of the Shia Islamist political movements, and views their proximity to power, both economic and political, as a threat. Given this belief, regional advances by Iran, political moves by the United States, and a deepening dependence on Saudi Arabia may all have led to this decision.
The Iranian Factor
From the view of the Gulf Arab states, Tehran has been consolidating its position in the wider Middle East. For Iran, the passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal, while failing to usher in a political opening with the United States, has allowed for increasing investments by neighbors and Europe, accompanied by an increase in petroleum exports. In Syria, Iran’s strategic cooperation with Russia and the government of President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against the Syrian opposition and jihadist forces has intensified, as signaled by the perhaps decisive battle over Aleppo. In Iraq, Iran’s role in planning the recent assault on Fallujah, held by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and in coordinating between the Iraqi Armed Forces and the Popular Mobilization Front proved crucial toward the operation’s success. For Sunni Gulf publics viewing regional conflicts increasingly through a sectarian lens, the arrival of Hezbollah reinforcements in Aleppo, and the hoisting of Shia militia flags alongside Iraqi flags in Fallujah, represent a frightening model of Iran-backed Shia mobilization in Arab lands.
The Bahraini government insists that Iranian subversion has already begun inside its country. In 2013, for example, Manama claimed that Iran shipped arms to Shia militant groups in Bahrain via a speedboat that had traveled from Iraq. The claim was echoed by the U.S. Department of State in a report that year, yet it remains unclear how pervasive Iranian involvement actually was in the event. The government is doubling down on the narrative with a trial of some 138 individuals, many in absentia, of being operatives in an Iranian cell, dubbed the Zulfiqar brigade.
The Bahraini opposition and many in the human rights community discount such accusations. Yet in private conversations and public interviews, moderate opposition personalities acknowledge that with the space for legitimate contestation evaporating, some members of the opposition are recommending a turn to external support, including Iran. A prominent former parliamentarian for al-Wefaq has voiced his concern that public bombings such as those that overtook Bahrain in the 1990s and have sporadically occurred since 2011 will accelerate. The question remains whether Tehran will see the recent government escalation against the opposition, and in particular against leading Shia clerics, as necessitating an escalation of its own.
Inside Iran, the revocation of the citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qassem was met with criticism across the government. Iran’s Foreign Ministry released a statement accusing Bahrain’s monarchs of “confronting peaceful public protests by intensifying security measures, jailing moderate [political] leaders and human rights activists and shutting down the offices of peaceful political and social associations.” Moreover, 252 Iranian members of parliament released a statement condemning the island kingdom’s action citing U.N. human rights violations.
Also weighing in were Iran’s principal security institutions and its Shia allies. The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Major General Qassim Suleimani, described the mistreatment of Qassem as a red line that would “leave the people [of Bahrain] with no other choice but armed resistance.” In Lebanon, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah stated that “stripping the nationality of the venerable, pure, courageous cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim is an extremely dangerous act.” However, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – while condemning Bahrain’s treatment of Qassem – insisted that Iran would not intervene “in any way” in the affairs of Bahrain.
U.S. Plans Gone Awry
U.S. aims in the Gulf may also be complicated by the exacerbation in regional and Bahraini tensions. Washington has had difficulty calibrating its security and political concerns regarding the island, which houses the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. In October 2011, Washington banned arms sales to the kingdom in response to the brutal crackdown on Shia protesters demanding political reform. Citing some meaningful human rights improvements and efforts at reconciliation by the al-Khalifa-led government, the administration of President Barack Obama lifted the ban on arms sales to the Ministry of Defense in June 2015.
More recently, the United States has focused its political objectives on calls for confidence-building measures to encourage participation in the upcoming 2018 parliamentary elections – a message delivered at the highest levels with Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Bahrain in April. The dissolution of the main Shia political society thus stands as a sharp rebuke, and significant roadblock for U.S. policy. The U.S. Department of State responded with a statement from Kerry noting the inconsistency of Bahraini government actions with U.S. interests and calling on its leadership to reverse course and “return urgently to the path of reconciliation.”
Still, the United States has appeared reluctant to use its political leverage, such that it is, to pressure for more reforms by the Bahraini government. A June State Department review of the implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry encouraged the government to implement political and human rights reforms, but abstained from assessing the impact of Bahraini policies for U.S. security in the region as congressionally mandated. The balance between the United States’ domestic and regional policy goals for Bahrain may be tilted by the strong preferences of Saudi Arabia, a country whose influence over Bahrain is immense and growing.
Saudi Arabia Looms Large
The decision to politically eliminate the opposition is more easily justified in a period of regional tumult and sectarian polarization, and under the umbrella of a Gulf Arab policy, led by Saudi Arabia, of outright confrontation with Iran. In a measure reminiscent of the Saudi execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr alongside scores of al-Qaeda saboteurs, Bahrain’s steps targeting the Shia opposition were accompanied by the prosecution and conviction of 24 people for belonging to an ISIL cell.
Bahrain’s actions model the decisiveness and regional assertiveness being promoted by the new Saudi leadership under King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Bahrain’s growing dependence on the neighboring kingdom for political support and increasingly for economic aid in a period of low oil prices and fiscal austerity is stark. Yet, while Saudi policies promote a new sense of Sunni Arab nationalism, Bahrain is declaring its devotion to Gulf unity and expressing its solidarity in the confrontation with Iran.
Bahrain’s political strategy both reflects and augments the regional tensions between Iran and the Gulf Arab states and sharpens the policy dilemmas of the United States. Anger over the Bahraini government’s clampdown on Shia clerics and the broader Shia-led opposition is unlikely to be quelled by the cultivation of traditional Shia elites, particularly in the numerous villages extending from the capital. Yet, more and more, Bahrain’s troubles – both political and economic – may fall within the portfolio of Saudi Arabia, and await Riyadh’s reconciliation with its Iranian foe.
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