Opposition to Bahrain's monarchy has set up shop in Iraq and criticism within Iraq of Bahrain's crackdown on dissidents hasn't gone down well in Manama. The perceived interference in Bahraini affairs could set Iraq on a collision course with the GCC.
Classified by the Kingdom of Bahrain as a terrorist organisation since 2014, the February 14 Youth Coalition is a Bahraini opposition movement that was established in digital forums. It began organising anti-government rallies soon after the archipelago state’s ‘Arab Spring’ protests erupted in 2011.
Demonstrations organised by the February 14 Youth Coalition have called for the ruling Bahraini regime to be toppled with “occupiers” [meaning Saudi and Emirati military personnel and police] to face trials.
“May Hamad fall” has been a common slogan at the movement’s rallies. While the February 14 Youth Coalition began as a non-violent revolutionary movement early on in Bahrain’s ‘Arab Spring’, it is affiliated with factions that have since taken the path of militancy such as the Popular Resistance Brigades (a.k.a. Saraya al-Muqawama al-Shabiya).
The February 14 Youth Coalition recently fueled significant tension in Manama’s relations with Iraq. Last month, from Baghdad, the movement announced its plans to open a branch in the Iraqi capital. Tension between Iraq and Bahrain worsened after footage emerged showing Iraq’s former Prime Minister and current head of the “State of Law” coalition, Nuri al Maliki, speaking out against Manama’s crackdown on Shia dissidents and activists at a meeting with the February 14 Youth Coalition in Baghdad.
In response, Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry summoned the deputy charge d’affaires of the embassy of Iraq. Bahrain’s state-owned media denounced Maliki’s statements as “blatant and unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain.”
In recent years, Bahraini authorities have treated such connections between the Shia opposition and foreign actors as a grave security threat to Bahrain, underscored by their expulsion of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani’s representative from the archipelago state in April 2014.
From Manama’s vantage point, influential political and religious figures from Iraq have meddled in Bahrain’s internal affairs, stoking sectarianism and spreading violent chaos. To be sure, the February 14 Youth Coalition’s opening of an office in Baghdad was not sponsored by Iraq’s government, nor are Iraqi leaders in Baghdad officially hosting Qassem. Nonetheless, from Bahrain’s perspective, the Iraqi state had the means to thwart the Bahraini movement from opening a branch in Baghdad as well as Qassem from obtaining a visa to come to Najaf (where he reportedly plans to spend the remainder of his life now that his Bahraini citizenship has been annulled) and that Iraqi authorities did not do so is telling in the eyes of Bahrain’s government.
Until or unless authorities in Baghdad decide to prevent Bahrain’s political opposition from operating out of Iraq’s capital, the privileges that Bahraini Shia enjoy in Baghdad will likely continue straining Bahraini-Iraqi relations.
There are implications for other states in the region too. Bahrain’s close ally and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), also voiced its strong disapproval of Iraq’s move to permit the Bahraini opposition movement to open an office in its capital. Abu Dhabi’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash took to social media and warned Iraq of a “serious precedent in interfering in internal affairs.”
Perceived Disloyalty in a National Security State
The uniquely Shia and transnational institution of the marja‘ al-taqlid heavily informs Sunni-led Gulf regimes’ suspicions that their Shia citizens are disloyal to the state and that they turn to religious authorities in foreign countries for guidance on spiritual, social, juridical, and political issues.
In Bahrain—the only Shia-majority GCC state and the country where the Islamic Republic backed a failed coup plot in 1981 in order to export the Khomeini revolution to the Arabian side of the Gulf—the issues of fidelity to the state and Iranian interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs remain two extremely sensitive issues.
In mid-2013, officials in Manama accused the February 14 Youth Coalition of being loyal to a Karbala, Iraq-based “spiritual leader” and maintaining financial, travel, and political ties with Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. The Bahraini government has also accused the movement of receiving weapons training in these three countries. That Issa al-Qassem, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s Shia opposition, now lives in Najaf is understood as further evidence of support that Iraq’s government provides Bahrain’s Shia oppositionists.
Yet without Bahrain’s regime and Shia opposition entering a fruitful dialogue that results in both sides making necessary concessions in order to overcome their impasse and move forward toward a brighter future, the pro-Western island nation’s Sunni rulers are likely to see more Shia citizens who feel marginalised and oppressed deciding to look abroad for support.
For Bahrain’s Shia opposition, which has had its space to express its views and articulate grievances severely restricted by the state since 2011—most notably with al-Wefaq’s dissolution in 2016, the perception of Iraq as a country that offers them another homeland from where their political activism can flourish may become more common as at a time in which the Al Khalifa rulers are tolerating essentially no dissent at home.
Geopolitical Consequences in the Gulf and Washington’s Stakes
Against the backdrop of tensions rising between several Arab states of the Gulf—including Qatar and its three GCC neighbors throughout the post-June 2017 crisis; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia over the shared oilfields of Wafra and Khafji in the Neutral Zone; and Oman and the Sultanate’s two GCC neighbors over the situation in Yemen’s al Mahra and the Muscat-Tehran relationship—escalation of friction between Bahrain and Iraq could easily create yet a new flashpoint in the volatile region.
Since Trump’s surprise appearance at Al Asad air base late last month, there has been a whole series of back-to-back diplomatic visits to Iraq.
Shortly after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unannounced visits to Baghdad and Erbil, his Iranian counterpart came to both cities to discuss business relations and security with Iraqi officials roughly one month before the planned “anti-Iran summit” in Warsaw; President Hassan Rouhani is also expected to make his first official visit to Iraq in March. On January 16, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Baghdad and pledged USD 1.15 billion for Iraq’s reconstruction. Also significant was the fact that this month the King of Jordan also paid a visit to Iraq, which was his first in over a decade.
Growing friction between Baghdad and Manama is occurring amid a period of immense challenges faced by capitals, as well as their close ally, the United States, which is struggling to help its regional partners mend ties and overcome rivalries in order to establish a cohesive pro-American, anti-Iranian bloc of Arab states.
The White House clearly wants to see GCC states gain greater influence in Iraq, ultimately for the purpose of pulling Iraq (much like Syria) back into fellow Arab states’ orbits of influence while putting more space between Baghdad and Tehran.
While in Cairo earlier this month, Pompeo touted improvements in Iraqi-Saudi relations as a sign of success on this US administration’s part. Yet ties between Baghdad and Riyadh might suffer as a result from Bahrain’s Shia oppositionists opening this office in the Iraqi capital, which will naturally bode well for Iran’s interests in keeping the Iraqi government closely aligned with the Islamic Republic.
A potential crisis in Bahraini-Iraqi relations may well be the newest episode of instability and tension in the region that affords Iran yet another gain.
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