Politics / Foreign Policy
While the Middle East continues to fall into turmoil, Iran is the one country in the region that is rising like a phoenix from the ashes of its neighbors. As one Iranian member of parliament put it last September, Iran now controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and most recently Sana’a. Policymakers and world leaders alike should be deeply concerned about the growth of the Iranian sphere of influence, but they should be especially concerned about Iran’s next potential target: the island Kingdom of Bahrain.
Bahrain is the smallest Arab nation in the Middle East, but its strategic importance to the U.S. and global community makes it a crucial factor in both the security and economic policy spheres. The reason for this is simple: Bahrain houses the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet. The 5th Fleet is tasked with keeping open the crucial Persian Gulf water ways and the Strait of Hormuz, through which approximately 19% of the world’s oil supply travels. Any disruption of the free flow of goods through the Strait of Hormuz would not only prove catastrophic for the oil market, but the reverberations of a spike in oil prices would prove detrimental to financial markets across the globe. Needless to say, Iran is well aware of the Strait’s strategic importance, and has attempted to deny access to the shipping lanes through mining, naval exercises, and direct attacks on civilian tanker ships in the past. Iranian actions became so provocative in the 1980s that the U.S. Navy conducted Operation Earnest Will, an escort mission for Kuwaiti tankers, and Operation Praying Mantis, a retaliatory strike on the Iranian navy after an American frigate hit a mine in the Strait. The 5th fleet and its headquarters at Naval Support Activity Bahrain are the only thing standing in the way of further Iranian aggression.
Unfortunately, Bahrain is a ripe target for Iranian incursions. As a majority (approx. 65%) Shia country ruled by an elite class of Sunni royals, Bahrain often faces internal turmoil. The Shia population is much poorer and less represented in the Bahraini government than their Sunni counterparts and most of their grievances are met with harsh crackdowns and unfulfilled promises from the ruling class. The turmoil caused by the Kingdom’s divisions has steadily inclined in the past few years, particularly since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. The uprising in Bahrain began as a series of protests by the Sunni population against the Al Khalifa monarchy and sought greater political freedoms for the Shia population. Conflict reached a fever pitch in March 2011 when the King declared martial law and quelled the protestors with a combination of troops from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. As of March 2014 it is believed around 93 people were killed in the clashes between the government and protestors. As of the writing of this article, sporadic protests and accusations of harsh crackdowns by royal security forces are ongoing.
Iran has a protective yet strategic relationship with foreign Shia groups. With the advent of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, President Rouhani promised in June of last year that Iran would protect the Shia population, yet Iranian leadership went silent when Shia Bahraini protestors were being quelled by Saudi and Emirati soldiers in 2011. That said, Iran does have a history of interventionism in Bahraini affairs going back to the 1970’s when the Shah attempted to claim the island for Iran. This trend continued after the revolution and into the early years of the Islamic Republic when Ayatollah Khomeini began to support, and secured the loyalty of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB), a Shia group which intended to overthrow the ruling Al-Khalifa family.
The leaders of the Islamic Republic are opportunists to the core, and one cannot discount their skill in the art of statecraft. If there is one lesson we have learned from them in the last year, it is their ability to strike when the iron is hot, as evidenced by their increased influence in Iraq and Yemen. Iran thrives in the failures of its neighbors. As ISIS overwhelms Iraq, Iran provides support, command and control for the Shia militias. As the Houthi rebellion took control of half of Yemen, Iran was there to offer support. Indeed, even decades ago it was the Islamic Republic’s leaders who helped create Hezbollah, their chief terrorist proxy, while Lebanon was in turmoil and civil war. In each of these cases, Iran saw an opportunity and seized upon it, riding the wave of chaos for their own benefit.
One could argue that Iran was given a similar opportunity in 2011 as the Bahraini Shias began to rise up, but did not capitalize on it. On its surface, this example breaks from the trend outlined previously, but this does not necessarily mean Iran will not capitalize on the ongoing tensions in Bahrain in the near future. On the contrary, Iran has far too much to gain by sowing seeds of chaos in Bahrain. Any disruption of the 5th fleet would be most beneficial to the Regime, whether it is as slight as logistical complications through continued political unrest or the removal of the pro-U.S. Al Khalifa regime which could in turn jeopardize the fleet’s headquarters at NSA Bahrain.
The Iranian leadership’s best weapons are asymmetric to those of the U.S. They are aware that their best strengths lie in disruption, subversion, covert activity and perhaps most of all, patience. Patience in matters of foreign policy is not often the strong suit of American leadership; after all, how could it be when our elected leaders often think in four year terms? So just because four years ago we did not see Iran jump at the opportunity presented in Bahrain, we certainly should not write off the possibility they will do so in the future. In fact, we are now at greater risk of Iran making a move on Bahrain than we ever have been, given the Regime has been emboldened by their gains in Iraq and Yemen, gains which have been met with little push back from the U.S.
It cannot be said for certain that Iranian leadership will bolster further disruption in Bahrain this year or even several years from now, but what can be said is that they have ample motive and opportunity to do so in the near future. Given the strategic importance of Bahrain, policymakers should take heed and prepare for the worst case scenario.