A series of trials under way in the neighboring Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and
Bahrain offer a glimpse into the ongoing, silent war being waged by Iran against
its regional rivals.
Bahrain is of particular interest to Tehran. The
tiny island emirate is home to a Shi’a majority – ruled over by the Sunni
Khalifa monarchy. Iranian officials often describe Bahrain as rightfully
constituting the “14th province” of Iran. A Shi’ite insurgency was crushed in
March 2011, following the entry of Saudi, Kuwaiti and United Arab Emirates
forces. Tensions remain high.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is one of Iran’s
main regional rivals.
The two, both major oil-producing states, are
separated by sectarian loyalties, strategy toward the West and straightforward
geopolitical competition for dominance in the energy-rich Gulf
The latest revelations suggest that the long-standing use by the
Iranian regime of subversion and irregular warfare as tools of policy in the
Gulf – as elsewhere – is proceeding apace.
In Bahrain, recent revelations
have centered on two cases.
In the first, a Bahraini citizen convicted in
July 2011 of transferring “military information and identifying sensitive sites
in Bahrain” to Iranian diplomats in Kuwait had his 10-year sentence confirmed
According to a statement from the court, the man, who has not
been named, sought to photograph “military and economic installations” in
Bahrain, as well as the homes of individuals employed at the US Juffair Naval
Base on the island. The Juffair Base is the main site in the Gulf offering
onshore services for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
The “diplomats” in question
were identified as members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. IRGC
members have a long history of posing as Iranian diplomats and consular
In the second, more recent case, Bahraini authorities in late
February arrested eight Bahraini citizens accused of membership in a cell
established by the Revolutionary Guards to plan and carry out attacks on
Bahrain’s international airport, Interior Ministry and other public facilities,
and to assassinate Bahraini officials.
The Bahrainis identified an IRGC
official, code-named “Abu Naser” as the head of this group. They claimed to have
captured a host of evidence, including electronic equipment, incriminating the
arrested men. The authorities also maintained that the members of the cell
attended IRGC training camps in Iran and Hezbollah- run centers in
In Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, the authorities in March arrested 16
Saudi citizens, an Iranian and a Lebanese, similarly on suspicion of membership
in a cell established by Iranian intelligence elements, and tasked with
gathering information and providing documents concerned with “installations and
vital areas” in the kingdom.
The Saudi citizens all hail from the
country’s 2 million strong Shi’a minority.
The Iranians, predictably, have
denied all the accusations. Iran and its regional mouthpieces accuse the Gulf
states of seeking to justify their repression of Shi’a communities.
the opposition al-Wifaq party in Bahrain denounced the latest arrests. In Saudi
Arabia, meanwhile, 37 Shi’a clerics issued a statement accusing the authorities
of escalating sectarian tension as a way of diverting public attention from
It is indisputable that both the Shi’a majority in Bahrain
and the Saudi Shi’a minority face real repression and discrimination. The
existence of real and justified grievances does not, however, cancel out the
evidence of Iranian subversive activity.
And it is also clear that the
evidence emerging regarding the activities of the IRGC in both countries follows
a pattern familiar both from experience and from Iranian activities elsewhere in
the region and beyond it.
The use made by Iran of local Shi’a
communities, and the subsequent engagement of those communities in political
violence on its behalf, is no longer in dispute. Past precedent suggests that
Iran seeks not only to recruit participants for paramilitary activity. Rather,
Tehran also wishes to build political influence and power through the
sponsorship of Shi’a Islamist movements.
Their efforts in Bahrain are not
of recent vintage. As far back as 1981, the proxy Islamic Front for the
Liberation of Bahrain launched a failed coup attempt, with the support and
probably under the direction of Iran and the IRGC.
The Iranians have
spent many patient years building up assets and clients within the Bahraini
Hasan Mushaima, the Shi’a Islamist leader of the Haq
movement, was openly pro-Iranian and known to have strong links with the Iranian
regime. Mushaima was jailed for life after the 2011 unrest.
along with five others, was convicted in absentia in 2012 for involvement in an
earlier Tehran sponsored terror cell.
Both the mainstream Wifaq opposition
movement and the more radical Coalition for a Republic have pro-Iranian elements
The latter includes the Bahraini Islamic Freedom Movement.
The leader of this openly pro-Iranian body, Saeed Shihaby, was discovered in
2011 to be working in London in premises owned by the government of
The latest revelations of Iranian subversion in the Gulf come
against a background of frenetic activity by Tehran elsewhere.
week, Lebanese-Swedish Hezbollah member Hossam Taleb Yaacoub was convicted of
gathering information on Israeli holidaymakers in Cyprus prior to the bombing at
A build up of Hezbollah and IRGC personnel in Damascus, according
to a report in Al-Arabiya, is now under way, in a determined attempt to hold
back recent rebel advances.
An Iranian ship carrying weapons for Shi’a
rebels in north Yemen was seized last month.
Tehran is seeking to guard
and expand the perimeters of the client and proxy structure it has built, at a
time when a rival Sunni Islamism is having its moment.
Iran’s silent war
in the Gulf forms an important front in this larger campaign.