The Islamic Republic of Iran has gotten away with murder. Or, more accurately when Iran’s proxy wars in Syria and Yemen are considered, hundreds of thousands of murders. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were willing to turn a blind eye to Iranian regional aggression to reach a nuclear deal. The Iranian regime took advantage of their reticence and upped its aggression throughout the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula.
The Obama administration might now be over, but former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s comment that he was putting Iran “on notice” aside, it’s not clear that the Trump administration has a plan yet to stop or roll back Iranian regional aggression.
The Iranian government appears inclined to test the new administration to see how far they can go regionally and with what Tehran can get away. Enter Bahrain.
The independence of Bahrain, the Arab world’s smallest state, has long chafed Iranian nationalists. As the British prepared to pull back from the Persian Gulf in 1970, Iran asserted its claims to the island. Bahrainis held a referendum under the sponsorship of the United Nations and both the island’s Sunni monarchy and elite, as well as its majority Shi’ite population, overwhelmingly voted to be independent.
While the Shah accepted the referendum’s results and Bahrain’s independence, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic did not. In 1981, as Bahrain prepared to mark its tenth anniversary, the Islamic Front for a Liberation for Bahrain (IFLB), an Iranian proxy, sought to overthrow Bahrain’s government and establish an Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Modaressi, who pledged his loyalty to Khomeini.
Bahraini authorities arrested the coup plotters and saboteurs and, over subsequent years, Bahrain thrived. Meanwhile, both Iran and Saudi Arabia pumped sectarian venom out in mosques and over the airwaves. Sectarian tension grew in Bahrain as the majority Shi’ite population chafed at sectarian discrimination in the economy and employment.
This discord erupted into sporadic protests—some violent—in the mid-1990s. With the accession of King Hamad, who supported a National Action Charter which was overwhelmingly affirmed in a 2001 referendum, Bahrain once again quieted.
A quiet, successful Bahrain, however, was not something that the Islamic Republic wished or wishes to tolerate. Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and on the tenth anniversary of the Charter, violence erupted last week in the center of Manama as Bahraini forces fired on crowds protesting stalled reforms. The Bahraini government argues that the protestors were agitators encouraged by Iran or Iranian proxies in Iraq and Lebanon to cause trouble. The Bahraini opposition denies such accusations, claiming instead that they are a grassroots movement merely seeking to rectify social and political wrongs.
In reality, it’s was probably a little of both. The protests may have been indigenous at first and the grievances real, but Iranian agents and Bahraini opposition figures of the IFLB generation have worked to co-opt the movement.
Now, the Iranian government appears determined to test Trump’s resolve by ramping up pressure on Bahrain. Earlier this month, Hojjat al-Islam Mojtaba Zonour, a former advisor to the Supreme Leader’s representative to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), explicitly threatened to level the U.S. base in Bahrain with Iranian ballistic missiles. Now, as the U.S. press continues its navel-gazing obsession and largely ignores the rest of the world, the Iranians are ramping up their rhetoric.
Every Friday for 38 years, either the Supreme Leader or a cleric appointed by him has led Friday prayers in central Tehran and delivered a sermon which highlights the official priorities and positions of the Islamic Republic. This past Friday, the appointed prayer leader was Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi told the Bahraini government, “Failure awaits you; your destruction is near.”
Such rhetoric should not be dismissed as empty. After all, the Islamic Republic is on the warpath. Its carefully cultivated proxies are the dominant power in Lebanon, prop up the Syrian government and do much of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s dirty work, seek to hijack the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi), many of whom are Iraqi patriots who simply sought to answer Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to defend Iraq from the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh), and have staged a coup d’état in Yemen. The possibility that Iranian officials might target not only the U.S. presence in Bahrain but the entire country is not unthinkable.
Obama and Kerry treated America’s allies poorly. They treated adversaries like Iran and Cuba better than friends like Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco who had for decades stuck with Washington. Human rights concerns don’t explain Obama’s attitudes because, whatever complaints exist about moderate Arab states, the fact is that the Iranian regime’s rights record is worse than even Saudi Arabia’s.
If Trump, Defense Secretary Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wish to show allies that America will once again stand by them, and if Trump is serious about standing up to terrorism and aggression, it is time to support Bahrain forcefully and openly. Simply put, Tehran will interpret silence as weakness, and weakness as an invitation to further aggression.