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April 08, 2010

Bahrain-Iran Foreign Relations

Ties between Iran and Bahrain remain colored by Iran’s attempts to violently export the Islamic Revolution to the Gulf state in the 1980s and 1990s.[1] Although the two countries have since improved political and economic ties, unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’a population has fueled further tensions, with Bahrain accusing Iran of interfering in its domestic affairs and Iran condemning the al Khalifa monarchy for suppressing Bahrain’s Shi’a.[2] This tension has resulted in a diplomatic tit-for-tat with officials on both sides issuing inflammatory statements toward the other. Notably, in February 2009 Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, a former Iranian parliament speaker and current advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, penned an inflammatory editorial claiming that, historically, "Bahrain was [Iran’s] 14th province and had a representative at the parliament," greatly straining bilateral ties and triggering a suspension of energy sector negotiations.[3] Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki subsequently apologized for the comments during a visit to Bahrain.[4]  The “Arab Spring” has further fanned the flames between the Gulf neighbors as Bahraini authorities allege that Iran and its regional proxies are behind the unrest in Bahrain. In April, Bahrain submitted a report to the UN alleging that Lebanese Hezbollah trained Bahraini opposition members in camps in Lebanon and Iran, and in July 2011 Bahrain’s high criminal court sentenced two Iranians and one Bahraini citizen working as diplomats in the Iranian embassy in Kuwait to ten years in prison for spying on behalf of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).[5]

Bahrain’s government has consistently supported Iran's right to develop civilian nuclear power, but has cautioned against the development of Iranian nuclear weapons.[6] Although supportive of a peaceful nuclear program, Bahrain’s crown prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa has publically stated his belief that the Iranian leadership is currently pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Speaking in November 2007, Crown Prince Salman asserted that “While [the Iranians] don't have the bomb yet, they are developing it, or the capability for it,” stressing the need for a diplomatic solution to the conflict in order to avoid destabilizing the region or potentially triggering a regional war.[7] Observers noted at the time that the crown prince’s remarks appeared to be the first time a Gulf state leader had openly accused Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons.[8]

Although bilateral exchanges have increased significantly over the past several years, economic interaction remains relatively minor – a report in 2011 estimated trade between the two Gulf states to total $5 billion annually.[9] The two countries began negotiations over Iranian natural gas exports to Bahrain in 2008,[10] however, Bahrain suspended the deal in 2011 as a result of increasing diplomatic tensions.[11] According to the preliminary agreement signed in 2008, Bahrain would eventually import on the order of 1.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas from Iran per day via an underwater pipeline. The two sides would also expand energy sector investment, with Bahrain providing a $4 billion investment for the partial development of Iran’s South Pars gas field and Iran taking part in Bahrain’s petrochemical and refining industries.[12]

In addition to economic ties, Bahrain and Iran share membership in several international and regional forums, including the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.



December 4, 2010: Speaking at the Manama Dialogue, a regional security summit held in Bahrain, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohamed al Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, reaffirmed his government’s support for the development of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program and suggested that “diametrically differing views on the issue that uranium enrichment capability,” rather than problems with engagement or sanctions strategies, were the root of the conflict between Iran and the West. Sheikh Khalid recommended that the sides examine solutions that address this fundamental disagreement, offering the creation of an international civilian nuclear-fuel bank as a possible remedy.[13]



May 23, 2011: Bahrain announced that their bilateral deal with Iran to import natural gas has been “halted” due to “blatant Iranian interference” in its internal affairs. According to Bahraini foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed al Khalifa, “The repeated provocative statements from Tehran would no doubt be an obstacle to any agreement between the two parties.”[14]

August 2, 2010: Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, announced that the recently imposed UN sanctions against his country would not affect its bilateral gas deal with Bahrain. Abdollahian boasted that “The booming trade between Iran and Bahrain is not affected by the UN sanctions.”[15]

June 30, 2010: Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced that his government is ready to provide the financial infrastructure and facilities to enable attract investment from neighboring countries.  Mottaki made his comments during the Second Iran-Bahrain High Commission meeting and claimed that Bahraini investors were in position to increase their direct investment in Iran.[16] He further noted his intention to conclude a gas export and technical cooperation agreement, in negotiations since 2008, with Bahrain “soon.” [17]

May 25, 2010: Bahraini and Iranian delegations met in Tehran to address questions about border demarcation between the two countries. Border negotiations resumed in 2010 after being stalled since 1993. Both states are also in cooperation with Qatar, another Persian Gulf territorial claimant, to properly define their common borders.[18]

April 16, 2010: An economic delegation, led by Iran’s Deputy First Vice President Ali Aqa-Mohammadi, traveled to Manama to discuss prospects for increasing bilateral trade. Mehr further cited a report from Bahrain Business Network claiming that Iran hoped to increase total bilateral trade to as much as $5 billion annually.[19]   



July 6, 2011: Bahrain’s high criminal court sentenced three individuals working in the Iranian embassy in Kuwait – one citizen of Bahrain and two Iranians – to 10 years in prison each for spying for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Bahraini officials claim the three "spied from 2002 until April 2010 in the Kingdom of Bahrain and abroad,” and provided economic and military intelligence to the IRGC.[20]

June 18, 2011: Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast rejected a statement issued by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) foreign ministers accusing Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of Gulf States “through conspiring against their national security.” The Iranian official described the statement as “an attempt to divert the international community’s attention from certain regional countries’ controversial and interventionist military actions against the regional nations who are campaigning for their legitimate demands and rights.”[21]

May 6, 2011: Iran announced it would begin investigating Saudi military action against Shi’ite protestors in Bahrain. Iranian majlis representative Mostafa Kavakebian stated that the Iranian legislative body would “thoroughly review the massacre of Bahraini people by [the] al-Saud and al-Khalifa (regimes).”[22]

April 25, 2011: In a report sent to the United Nations, Bahrain accused Hezbollah of training Bahraini opposition groups in Lebanon and Iran. Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohamed al Khalifa, is quoted in the report: “Some foreign countries have actively provided logistical support to Hezbollah to assist in destabilizing Bahrain over recent months.” U.S. intelligence officials are also reported to have observed communication between Bahraini opposition groups, Hezbollah, and Iran since the protests emerged in February.[23]

April 20, 2011: Both sides participating in the 21st session of the Joint Council for the European Union and Gulf Cooperation Council called on Iran to desist from interfering in the internal affairs of Gulf countries.[24]

April 6, 2011: In reference to Iranian interference in Bahrain, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reported to the media that, “We already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain.  We also have evidence that they are talking about what they can do to try to create problems elsewhere as well.”[25]

March 22, 2011: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed that Iran’s support for Bahraini dissidents was unconnected to sectarian issues and offered support for all “anti-despotic” movements. Khamenei noted that his country “will not make a differentiation between Gaza, Palestine, Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.”[26] 

March 20, 2011: Iran expelled a Bahraini diplomat in response to Bahrain’s expulsion of Iran’s charge d’affaires. Tensions between the two Persian Gulf states have escalated as a result of domestic unrest in the region. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast called Bahrain’s actions “illogical and incomprehensible.”[27] Bahrain accuses Iran of supporting proxy groups inside of Bahrain to foment the protests.

March 19, 2011:  Mohsen Rezai, secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, asserted that Saudi Arabia had “fallen into the U.S. trap” by allowing its military to be “dispatched to Bahrain to defend US troops and stop the uprising of the Muslim nation of Bahrain.” Rezai further insisted that the participants in the anti-government protests that have taken place in the Middle East and North Africa between January and March 2011 look to Iran as “their source of reliance is Iran.”[28]

March 18, 2011: Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported that “thousands” of Iranians had taken part in protests across the country to demonstrate opposition to what participants described as the U.S. supported “crimes” of the Saudi and Bahraini governments.[29]

March 17, 2011: During a meeting with Turkish Ambassador to Iran, Umit Yardrim, Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani lamented Saudi and UAE military intervention in Bahrain, saying that "the entering of foreign forces into Bahrain will complicate the situation region” and insisted that "foreign troops are committing a bigger crime as they are involved in the crackdown against Bahraini people."[30]

March 16: 2011: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that the size and scope of the Bahraini demonstrations compel the Bahraini leadership to address the concerns of the protesters. Ahmadinejad further stated that violent action taken by authorities to quell the demonstrations would be ineffectual.[31]

March 15, 2011: In response to Iranian Foreign Ministry comments over Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain, the Bahraini government recalled its ambassador to Iran, stating that Iranian criticism constituted “blatant interference" in the internal affairs of the country.[32] The Iranian Foreign Ministry responded in kind on March 17, recalling its ambassador back to Iran for consultations, claiming that the move was taken “in protest at the killing of the people of Bahrain by its government.”[33]

March 15, 2011: The Iranian Foreign Ministry criticized Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain, with Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast stating that "The presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain's internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue."[34] The Foreign Ministry further responded by summoning the Swiss[35] and Saudi ambassadors for discussions over the intervention.[36] The introduction of Saudi armed forces and police from the United Arab Emirates came at the request of the Bahraini government.[37]

March 14, 2011: Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Director General for Persian Gulf and Middle East Affairs within the Iranian foreign ministry, called on Bahrain to refrain from seeking foreign assistance to quell internal unrest. Abdollahian insisted, “the peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain are among the domestic issues of this country, and creating an atmosphere of fear and using other countries' military forces to oppress these demands is not the solution.”[38]

February 23, 2011: A group of 191 Iranian members of parliament issued a statement condemning the actions of Bahrain’s government (along with the governments of Libya, Yemen, and Morocco) in using force to suppress anti-regime protests earlier in the month. The statement criticized the “ruthless slaughter of unarmed people of these countries” and called on the Organization of the Islamic Conference to take action in order to bring an end to the crackdowns.[39]

February 19, 2011: Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the director of the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Persian Gulf and Middle East Department, called on the Bahraini government to respect the rights of protesters and noted his government’s expectation that “the demands of the Bahraini people, both Shias and Sunnis, should be properly addressed during the current political process.” According to the state-sponsored Tehran Times, Amir-Abdollahain specifically condemned the state’s use of violence against demonstrators in Manama.[40] 

June 22, 2010: Responding to the publication of a series of reports and statements heavily critical of Iran in Bahraini media, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid claimed that his government “totally reject[s]” the anti-Iranian sentiment present in the local press. According to Sheik Khalid, reports that the Bahraini News Agency described as “accusing Tehran of seeking to expand its power and influence in the region” in no way “mirror…our keenness on the development of bilateral relations, especially in light of the current situation that requires joint efforts to address any threat to stability and security in the region."[41]

May 29, 2010: According to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency, Bahraini Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa requested that the Iranian government fulfill its security commitments according previously concluded agreements between the two countries. Speaking during a meeting with Iran’s ambassador to Bahrain, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Sheikh Rashid noted that the security agreements allowed for bilateral cooperation relating to counterterrorism and narcotics trafficking.[42]   

[1] After the 1979 Iranian revolution, some among the revolutionary elite sought to export the Islamic revolution to neighboring Shia majority countries. The most noteworthy incident occurred in 1981 when Bahraini officials arrested a large group it accused of acting under orders from the Islamic Republic to assassinate the Bahraini leadership and implement a coup d’état. Though no Iranians were arrested in connection with this plot the incident produced a severe strain in diplomatic ties. For more information, see the Bahrain entry on Encyclopedia Iranica, http://iranica.com/articles/bahrain-all and
“Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, April 26, 2010, http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/142737.pdf (accessed July 22, 2011)
[2] “Kingdom, Greeting Gulf Soldiers, Is Seen as New Front on Sunni-Shiite Divide,” Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703566504576202971554841248.html, (accessed: July 22, 2011).
[3]  “Bahrain rejects Iran comments on sovereignty, “ Today's Zeman, February 23, 2009, http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/detaylar.do?load=detay&link=167742 (November 4, 2009)
[4] Iran's stand on Bahrain outrages Arab Leaders,” Ya Libnan, March 30, 2009,  http://yalibnan.com/site/archives/2009/03/irans_stand_on.php (November 4, 2009)
[5] “Bahrain jails three for spying for Iran: report,” AFP, July 6 2011, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gsre1o1UssbG-NKuJWr-k_kce85g?docId=CNG.400d0f07f2d2e0899ef48311491aa56c.6a1  (accessed July 12, 2011)
[6] Officials from Bahrain have reiterated the position that the Middle East should be kept free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). See, for example, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/02/136480.htm. Bahrain has also reportedly sought assistance from the United States for developing civilian nuclear infrastructure.  See William Broad and David Sanger, “U.S. Is Pushing to Deter a Mideast Nuclear Race,” The New York Times, May 2, 2010.  
[7]“Bahrain accuses Iran of nuclear weapons lie,” The Times online, November 2, 2007, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article2789056.ece, (accessed: February 24, 2011)
[8] “Bahrain accuses Iran of nuclear weapons lie,” The Times online, November 2, 2007, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article2789056.ece, (accessed: February 24, 2011)
[9] “Bahrain traders call for boycott of Iran trade,” AFP via The Daily Star, May 3, 2011, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/May/03/Bahrain-traders-call-for-boycott-of-Iran-trade.ashx#axzz1S5dm3gCX (accessed July 14, 2011)
[10] “Bahrain to press on with Iran gas deal,” Financial Times, October 24, 2008, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d590232a-a162-11dd-82fd-000077b07658.html#axzz1RvTNGCJK (accessed July 12, 2011)
[11] “Iran-Bahrain gas project off again,” The National, May 23, 2011, http://www.thenational.ae/business/energy/iran-bahrain-gas-project-off-again (accessed July 12, 2011)
[12] “Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, April 26, 2010, http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/142737.pdf (accessed July 22, 2011)
“Bahrain-Iran gas deal ‘soon’,” Gulf Daily News¸ June 30, 2010, http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=281299, (accessed February 25, 2011)
[13] Khalid al-Khalifa, First Plenary Session – Sheikh Khalid Al Halifa,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, December 4, 2010, http://www.iiss.org/conferences/the-iiss-regional-security-summit/manama-dialogue-2010/plenary-sessions-and-speeches/first-plenary-session/sh-khalid-al-khalifa/, (accessed: February 25, 2011)
[14] “Iran-Bahrain gas project off again,” The National, May 23 2011, http://www.thenational.ae/business/energy/iran-bahrain-gas-project-off-again (accessed June 12, 2011)
[15] “Iran gas exports to Bahrain still on,” Press TV, August 2, 2010, http://www.presstv.ir/detail/137198.html (accessed July 22, 2011)
[16] “Mottaki: Iran ready to provide facilities for foreign investors,” June 30, 2010, IRIB, http://english.irib.ir/news/political/item/62777-mottaki-iran-ready-to-provide-facilities-for-foreign-investors, (accessed July 22, 2011)
[17] “Bahrain-Iran gas deal ‘soon’,” Gulf Daily News¸ June 30, 2010, http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=281299, (accessed February 25, 2011)
[18] “Iran, Bahrain to Review Border Issues,” Fars News Agency, May 25, 2010, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8903040735
[19] “Iran, Bahrain to boost Economic Ties,” Iran Chamber of Commerce, April 16, 2010, http://en.iccim.ir/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2861:iran-bahrain-to-boost-economic-ties&catid=103:iran-economy-bulletin (accessed July 22, 2011)
[20] “Bahrain jails three for spying for Iran: report,” AFP, July 6 2011. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gsre1o1UssbG-NKuJWr-k_kce85g?docId=CNG.400d0f07f2d2e0899ef48311491aa56c.6a1 (accessed July 12, 2011).
[21] “Iran Dismisses PGCC statement as invalid,” Tehran Times, June 18, 2011, http://www.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=242579 (accessed June 12, 2011).
[22] “Iran to investigate Saudi role in Bahrain,” UPI, May 6, 2011. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2011/05/06/Iran-to-investigate-Saudi-role-in-Bahrain/UPI-36721304702031/ (Accessed June 12, 2011).
[23] “Bahrain Sees Hezbollah Plot in Protest,” The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703907004576279121469543918.html (accessed July 14, 2011)
[24] “21st EU-GCC Joint Council and Ministerial Meeting Abu Dhabi, 20 April 2011,” The Gulf Cooperation Council, April 20, 2011, http://www.gcc-sg.org/eng/index5ec6.html?action=Sec-Show&ID=322 (accessed May 27, 2011)
[25] “Media Availability with Secretary Gates from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,” U.S. Department of Defense Transcripts, http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4806 (accessed July 14, 2011)
[26] “Uprising in Bahrain has nothing to do with Shiism, Sunniism: Leader,” Mehr News Agency, March 22, 2011, http://www.mehrnews.com/en/newsdetail.aspx?NewsID=1277180, (accessed March 23, 2011)
[27] “Iran expels Bahraini diplomat in tit-for-tat move,” Reuters via AlertNet, March 20, 2011, http://www.trust.org/alertnet/news/iran-expels-bahraini-diplomat-in-tit-for-tat-move (accessed July 12, 2011)
[28] “EC Secretary Blasts Saudi Military Intervention in Bahrain,” Fars News Agency, March 19, 2011, http://english.farsnews.net/newstext.php?nn=8912280325, (accessed March 19, 2011)
[29] “Iranians March to Condemn Brutal Suppression of Bahrainis,” Fars News Agency, March 18, 2011, http://english.farsnews.net/newstext.php?nn=8912270542, (accessed March 19, 2011)
[30]  “Larijani: Deployment of Foreign Forces in Bahrain Complicates Regional Conditions,” Fars News Agency, March 17, 2011, http://english.farsnews.net/newstext.php?nn=8912260331, (accessed March 19, 2011)
[31] “Learn lesson from Saddam’s fate: Ahmadinejad,” Mehr News Agency, March 16, 2011, http://www.mehrnews.com/en/newsdetail.aspx?NewsID=1275897, (accessed March 19, 2011)
[32] “Manama recalls ambassador to Iran, alleging ‘blatant interference’,” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2011, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/babylonbeyond/2011/03/bahrain-iran-diplomacy-ambassador-recall-.html, (accessed March 19, 2011)
[33] “Iran Recalls Ambassador From Bahrain,” AP via Fox News, March 17, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/17/501364/main20044216.shtml (accessed July 22, 2011)
[34] “Presence Of Saudi Troops In Bahrain Unacceptable: Iran, ” Mehr News Agency, March 15, 2011, http://www.mehrnews.com/en/newsdetail.aspx?NewsID=1274935 (accessed July 22, 2011)
[35]  The Swiss Embassy represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of official diplomatic ties between Tehran and Washington.
[36] “Iranian Foreign Ministry Summons Swiss, Saudi Envoys,” Press TV, March 15, 2011, http://www.presstv.ir/detail/170040.html (accessed July 22, 2011)
[37] “Saudi Arabian, gulf forces enter Bahrain,” Chicago Tribune, March 15, 2011, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/la-fg-bahrain-troops-20110315,0,7073393.story, (accessed March 19, 2011)
[38] “Iran urges Bahrain to prevent ‘foreign interference’,” MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42077295/ns/world_news-mideast/n_africa/ (accessed July 12, 2011)
[39] ”Iran censures brutality of 4 Arab states,” Press TV, February 23, 2011, http://edition.presstv.ir/detail/166665.html, (accessed: February 24, 2011)
[40] “‘Bahraini gov’t must respond to citizens’ demands’,” Tehran Times, February 20, 2011, http://www.tehrantimes.com/index_View.asp?code=236095, (accessed: February 25, 2011)
[41] Habib Toumi, “Shaikh Khalid receives Iran’s ambassador to Bahrain,” Gulf News, June 22, 2010, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/bahrain/shaikh-khalid-receives-iran-s-ambassador-to-bahrain-1.644721, (accessed: February 25, 2011)
[42] “Bahrain Calls for Implementation of Security Agreements with Iran,” Fars News Agency, May 29, 2010, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8903081526
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