- Iran and the ‘Bahrain Question’: sectarianism or strategy?
The unrest which resurfaced in Bahrain in February 2011 saw the Sunni ruling al-Khalifa family, like other neighbouring Sunni monarchs blame Iran for inciting the popular unrest. With the first signs of dissent, the Bahraini government emphasised the sectarian nature of the protests, accusing Iran and the Lebanese movement Hizb’allah of fomenting dissent through ties to militant parties in Bahrain’s Shi’ia majority. Since then, the al-Khalifa response has been characterised by King Hamad’s March 2011 claim (a thinly veiled reference to post-revolution Iran) that “an external plot has been fomented for 20 to 30 years until the ground was ripe for subversive designs.” As recently as this October, more than a dozen opposition activists were convicted of spying for Iran, and sentenced to 5-15 years imprisonment for their alleged links to Iran’s “senior leadership and members of the Revolutionary Guards.” Claims about Iranian involvement in the cross-sect uprisings have been largely disproved by expert evidence, including that given at the UK Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry into British policy with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain earlier this year, as well as by the 2011 BICI report itself. Yet these ongoing allegations, often echoed more subtly by the UK government itself,  highlight how Shi’ia majority Iran has long-since been portrayed as a regional troublemaker by a number of Gulf states, in particular through its claims in Bahrain.
From its adoption of Bahrain as a British protected territory a century ago, the British government was keenly aware of the injustices administered against Bahrain’s majority Shi’as by the ruling Sunni monarchy. As early as the 1920s, tensions arose between UK officials and the Bahraini regime around the treatment of its Shi’a population, whose marginalisation had become increasingly difficult to ignore. Correspondences from Britain’s political agent in Manama in 1921 refer to an ongoing record of oppression by the ruling family, reflected in abuses “too numerous to quote” against the Shi’ia. (Among these were noted the illegal seizure of property, political murder, detention without trial, discriminatory taxation and wrongful imprisonment, with the Agent on occasion intervening to afford protection at the request of victims.) A series of uprisings and protests against injustices in the 1920s saw pressure mount on British officials to take action against Bahraini misrule, with Shi’ia groups organising to petition British envoys over their duties of protection. However, British authorities explained at the time that they were “not prepared to consider drastic action against Bahrain misrule” until all other benign means of exerting pressure had been exhausted.
It was only as the situation was escalated with the intrusion of other regional powers, namely Persia and the ruling monarchy of what became Saudi Arabia, that the Foreign Office was compelled to take a more active stance on Bahrain’s internal affairs. As word of discrimination against Shi’ia in Bahrain spread, fuelled by coverage in Persian newspapers, hostilities erupted between migrant Persian workers and the Sunni subjects the Saudi King in Bahrain. A series of clashes between residents of the two communities in Manama resulted in deaths on both sides, and condemnation of British officials by both Saudi and Persian rulers for failing to stall the hostilities. The conflict reflected long-standing tension over Iranian claims to ownership of Bahrain’s island territories, which many believed had been unjustly removed from Persian rule by the British in the 19th Century.
Britain’s designation of Bahrain as under protected status of Her Majesty’s government in a treaty in Jedda in 1927 further aggravated this dispute and effectively made the question of ownership a matter for official contention between Britain and Iran. When Reza Shah demanded the return of Bahrain in a letter to the League of Nations, Britain sent an official memorandum to the Iranian government, rejecting Iranian sovereignty. Months later, the Shah sent his sizeable naval fleet in the Gulf to occupy the nearby island of Hinjam, designated Bahraini territory, and began threatening the inhabitants of other neighbouring islands to which it had laid claim. Unsuccessful negotiations between Iran and Britain were stalled by World War Two, but the issue of Iranian ambitions in Bahrain was revived with the 1968 announcement of Britain’s intention to withdraw from its Gulf protectorates “East of Suez” by the end of 1971.
Despite warnings from British envoys in Manama about the dangers of opening up a power vacuum in the region, the British government decided in 1967 that the potential cost to its reputation from prolonging its presence in the Gulf outweighed any economic benefit it might derive there.  This long-sighted decision to depart was attended by rigorous efforts to “tidy-up” Britain’s position prior to withdrawal by creating a local environment conducive to long-term stability. The chief priorities of this task were shoring-up security against the continuing internal risk of Shi’ia opposition, as well as against any external threats to Bahrain in the form of antagonist relations with its neighbours. As one British official in Manama noted in a 1966 letter to the FCO, “we must clearly not be deceived by [recent] improvements into thinking that everything in the garden is lovely… ” Bahrain’s rulers were keenly aware of this threat of instability, represented primarily in a renewed territorial claim from Iran and the al-Khalifas offered a number of economic incentives for Britain to retain its military presence in the Gulf. Despite the anxiety of Bahrain’s rulers, British Prime Minister Heath decided on political grounds that British naval forces would also withdraw with Bahraini independence in 1971.
The resolution of the ‘Bahrain Question’ prior to Britain’s departure was thus seen as imperative for the long-term security of the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy. As was then noted in a memorandum from the British political agent in Bahrain to the Foreign Office, “when the Bahrain government was told in 1968 that Her Majesty’s Government would relinquish her special responsibilities for Bahrain by the end of 1971, they at once requested action to settle the Iranian contention that the Sheikhdom belonged to Iran.” Heath’s government was also astute to the danger that any aggression from Iran might pose to its own interest in regional stability and favourable international standing post-withdrawal. It therefore set about efforts at brokering a pragmatic, and face-saving settlement for all players in the years leading up to its departure.
Unlike the strategically-important Gulf islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs which Iran claimed, Bahrain itself held little economic or security value for Iran during the 1960s. The Shah’s main anxieties at that time centred around the prospect of the power vacuum in the Gulf being filled by hostile, radical Arab nationalist forces who might penetrate the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula and threaten Iran’s lucrative oil industry. Gulf security after British withdrawal was thus equally vital for Iran and the Shah was enthusiastic to cultivate good relations amongst the region’s conservative royal families. In light of this goal, it made strategic sense for Iran to abandon its claim to Bahrain and enter into a formal defence agreement with the states in the region – a scenario favoured by London and Washington as well as Teheran. However, the Bahrain issue also had important domestic political implications for Iran’s ruler. With his legitimacy inside the country contested by the bulk of its citizens, the Shah was anxious about the consequences that relinquishing the claim to Bahrain might have in further eroding his popularity. The notion of historical Persian sovereignty over Bahrain resonated strongly with Iranians at the time, particularly amongst intellectuals. So too, as has been noted, the question “was particularly emotive as it involved a dispute with Britain, an imperial power that had deeply penetrated Iran’s political and economic life for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” 
Although he had given prior confirmation to Britain and US officials that he had no intention of vying for Bahrain by force, Reza’s fears of arousing hostile public opinion inside Iran proved the major obstacle to jointly settling the dispute. The British Ambassador in Tehran at the time emphasised the Shah’s presiding fear that he would “go down in history as the man who lightly abandoned his country’s “14th Province”’.  In a 1968 letter to the Foreign Office, where officials were becoming evermore frustrated with the Shah, the ambassador described that “[Reza] cannot for one moment afford to give the impression that he is slipping, going soft, giving things away, etc. or everyone would be at his throat.” 
The Shah therefore proposed that the issue be resolved through conducting a plebiscite on the question of sovereignty inside Bahrain, with the results endorsed by the United Nations. Only if the abandonment of Iran’s claim was perceived as the will of the Bahraini people, “dropped in conformity with internationally recognised procedures”, would it be acceptable in Iranian minds, the Shah argued. The notion was vehemently opposed by both Bahrain and Britain, as being both arduous and risky. The Shah was also eventually cautioned against the plebiscite by the Saudi monarch of the time, King Faisal, with whom he was then seeking to diplomatically settle a separate territorial dispute. After a year of secret negotiations between the Bahraini rulers and the Shah, in consultation with London, it was finally agreed that Bahraini sovereignty would be confirmed via a formal UN mission to the island to ascertain the “true wishes” of
its “inhabitants” on their “future status” – wording insisted upon by the Shah. Such a settlement, as the British Foreign Secretary the time viewed it, would “affirm the ‘Arabism’ of Bahrain but in such a way as to get the Iranian government off the hook. It would thus
amount to a prearranged public relations exercise.” With agreement established between the parties, the mission was executed with little disruption in March 1970. Following a fortnight of consultations inside Bahrain, the UN envoy to the mission, Italian diplomat Vittorio Winspeare issued a report concluding that: “the overwhelming majority of the people of Bahrain wish to gain recognition of their identity in a fully independent and sovereign State free to decide for itself its relations with other States”. The next month the UN Security Council convened at Iran and Britain’s request to endorse the findings of the mission in a unanimous resolution. According to ambassador Wright, the outcome was received in Teheran with “smug self-congratulation”. A letter to the Foreign Office from Iranian officials several days after the resolution, praising the “exemplary and far-sighted” approach of the Shah and wishing the new Bahraini state well confirmed this view. As it noted: “the peaceful solution of the question of Bahrain has proven to be a source of satisfaction for everyone…We are confident that Great Britain will work with us in harmony and friendship towards assuring peaceful stability in this region.”
Similarly effusive sentiments were expressed by the King of Bahrain in his speech following the UN Security Council’s confirmation of Bahraini sovereignty and independence. As he explained: “[Bahrain’s] problem has passed, and reached its hoped for goal… the confirmation of the Arab character of Bahrain, the support of its identity and the strengthening of its independence.” Expressing his gratitude for the support of Bahrain’s “brotherly Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia”, the King also praised his Persian neighbour. As he noted in his address of May 19: “by its attitude characterised by friendship and the desire for understanding and the spread of friendship…[Iran] has opened up a fresh opportunity for the establishing of strong and fruitful relations between our two countries and between the countries of the area, and the two friendly Muslim peoples, the Arab and Iranian people.”
This new rapprochement between the Gulf monarchs and Iran strengthened Persian leverage in the settlement of the remaining dispute over the Islands. One day before Britain’s treaty obligations in the region expired in November 1971, the Shah deployed his troops on the Islands, after months of negotiations with the British. In London, satisfaction was also expressed with the timely resolution of the dispute prior to its withdrawal. Commenting on the affair, a Foreign Office report on the eve of Britain’s departure explained that: “In a longer term perspective, the settlement of the Iran-Bahrain problem is a most important contribution to our efforts to leave the Gulf in a state of peace and stability.” It noted the rational approach of the Shah in negotiations, suggesting that “it seems unlikely that [the Shah] would have moved forward so quickly had military withdrawal not been announced in ‘68…”. However, British officials were equally aware of the fragility of relations in the region and the likelihood that the strategic importance of the Gulf would see disputes between rival powers re-erupt there. As was explained in the report, “pending withdrawal has had effect in awakening the appetite of larger powers in the area of aggrandisement. If reason cannot keep them under control, the prospects for stability in the Gulf are bound to become darker.”
Indeed, the advent of the Islamic Revolution several years later in 1979 dramatically altered the dynamics of the region. As well as igniting military conflicts with neighbouring Iraq, the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran saw a dramatic turn towards hostility in relations with the Sunni Gulf monarchs, in which the unresolved claim to the Gulf Islands became a rallying point. As recently as this May, visits by Iranian officials to the territories provoked anger amongst UAE rulers and their Saudi backers who deemed such moves a “flagrant violation of…sovereignty”. The rise of Shi’a government in Iran has also undoubtedly altered the dynamics of domestic politics in Bahrain since the al-Khalifa’s pre-independence liaisons with the Shah. However, the rational and overwhelmingly pragmatic dealings between the states of forty years ago do much to support the view that the current dispute between Bahrain and Iran is not so much sectarian as strategicc. Despite attempts by Gulf rulers to rhetorically frame the unrest in Bahrain as a Shi’ia conspiracy, the historical context suggests that the dispute is one based on questions of power and not ideology. With relation to the current conflicts in the region, Fawaz Gerges notes that the image of sectarian disintegration projected by governments is misleading. As he explains, “a great geostrategic struggle is taking place in region between the Sunni-dominated monarchies of the Gulf and Iran… These powers are investing tremendous resources in co-opting and mobilising their basis along sectarian lines.” 
 Rouhani stated that: “… we must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain …”
 For example, In its annual report on ‘Human Rights and Democracy’ in 2011, the FCO referred to the unrest in Bahrain, describing the opposition campaign as increasingly “militant and sectarian”.
 BRFG 5
 6 October 1966, British Political Agency. Letter Tony Parsons, to Michae Weir, FCO. (p 90)
 Alvandi, Roham (2010) ‘Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the Bahrain question, 1968-1970’, British journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 37 (2). pp. 159-177
 Cited ibid.
 Foreign Office, 19 September 1968, FO 248/1651.
 Fawas Gerges, BBC Analysis, ‘Syria and the New Lines in the Sand, 1 July 2013. At: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/analysis/analysis_20130701-2100a.mp3