Iran’s continuing aggression in Bahrain

Iran has been mobilising groups in Bahrain in response to US sanctions as Washington moves to disrupt Islamic Republic’s regional proxies.

MANAMA - After reimposing sanctions on Iran, Washington has moved to clip the wings of the Islamic Republic’s proxies in the region, not least the militant al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB) in Bahrain.

Iran has been mobilising groups sympathetic to its causes to protest outside of Gulf countries’ embassies across Europe and intensifying their pro-Iranian activities in the Gulf region, political observers said. 

On August 13, the US State Department listed one of AAB’s leaders, Qassim Abdullah Ali Ahmed, also known as Qassim al-Muamen, as a specially designated global terrorist, subjecting him to wide-ranging sanctions.

Ahmed, a senior figure in the designated terror group who is based in Iran, stands accused of providing members with funding, weapons and explosives to attack the Bahraini government. In 2017, he was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for his involvement in an attack that killed a Bahraini police officer.

The State Department said Ahmed’s “property and interests subject to US jurisdiction are blocked and US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with him”. 

“The Kingdom of Bahrain expresses its sincere appreciation of this important step by the Unites States, which is seen as part of the on-going US efforts to confront terrosism and combat its financing for the sake of international peace and security,” the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded in a statement August 14 on twitter. 

The ministry called for “joint action and cooperation at all levels to ensure the elimination of all forms of terrorism and deter those who finance or support it.”

Officials noted an increase in the mobilisation of pro-Iranian activists outside the Bahraini Embassy in London, where they called for the release of Hassan Mushaima, in Bahraini custody sine 2011. 

Mushaima, founder and secretary-general of the hard-line Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, as one of the main figures in anti-government protests in Bahrain in February and March 2011. 

A Shia cleric, Mushaima is a known supporter of the Tehran regime, with strong ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Iranian media organs and international media friendly to Tehran have been championing Mushaima’s cause. 

US Sanctions  

The United States’ sanctions on Ahmed and other AAB leaders, which deny them access to the US financial system, are an indication of Iran’s growing presence in Bahrain, which has for years dealt with attacks by militant Shia groups on its security services and public institutions.

The AAB, founded in 2013, is among the deadliest of these groups, having claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in Bahrain, including a March 2014 bombing that killed three Bahraini and UAE security officers. AAB has called for violence against the Bahraini, British, Saudi and US governments, the US State Department said, and explicitly seeks the overthrow of the Bahraini government.

The United States has joined the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in designating AAB a “foreign terrorist organisation,” saying it is part of Iran’s “terrorist” proxy network aimed at spreading “its malevolent influence and (upending) international peace and stability.”

Also part of Iran’s network in Bahrain is the Saraya al Mokhtar militia, which has extensive ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shia insurgents trained by Hezbollah.

Iran’s relationship with Bahraini militant groups is distinct from the role it plays in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, where it provides proxies with wide-ranging support, including large-scale weaponry, and operates more openly on the political scene, analysts say. It also shows how effective the country is at spreading its destructive vision through different geopolitical terrain.

“What Bahrain shows is that Iran uses different formulas to support its proxies in each operational environment,” said Michael Knights, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

“Iran’s adaptive approaches in each area mean that the US needs to flexibly respond to Tehran’s challenge.”

Indeed, Iran’s interference in Bahrain is part of a troubling pattern of aggression, which has alarmed both Gulf countries and other nations of the world.

The United States, which abandoned the Iran nuclear agreement in May and announced the reimposition of sanctions on Tehran, recently voiced concern over Iran’s provocative firing of a ballistic missile near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

“It’s pretty clear to us that they were trying to use that exercise to send a message to us that, as we approach the period for the sanctions here, they had some capabilities,” said US Army General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command. “We are aware of what’s going on and we remain ready to protect ourselves.”

Many countries are concerned that Iran is preparing to launch destructive and costly cyber-attacks to hit back against recent sanctions. From 2012-14, Iran carried out dozens of such attacks, targeting banks and financial institutions and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage.
All of this is reason for the world to take Iran’s aggressive behaviour seriously. The country’s sectarian vision and ruthless tactics, which have played out everywhere from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to Yemen, have made the world a more dangerous place. Now, with Iran’s designs seeming even more ominous, it is all the more important its aggressive policies be effectively resisted.