Iran has long cultivated a covert strategy in the Persian Gulf states, particularly in Bahrain, that has helped advance the recent Shiite unrest. However, the March 14 Saudi-led offensive in Bahrain may present a roadblock to Iran's covert strategy, forcing Tehran to reconsider its next moves.
Thus far, the Iranians have relied on their strengths in the covert arena to pursue their agenda in Bahrain and the wider Persian Gulf region. This is a space that Iran feels comfortable operating in, as it is a relatively low-risk and potentially high-reward method of realizing its strategic objectives. For Bahrain specifically, Iran has relied on its political, business and militant links to block negotiations between the Shiite opposition and the royal Sunni al-Khalifa family, escalate the protests, and instigate sectarian clashes to transform Bahraini political unrest to a charged sectarian affair that could potentially reshape the balance of power in eastern Arabia in favor of the Shia. The Iranians have spent years building up relationships with Shiite communities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and have infiltrated trained operatives in Shiite opposition groups to help drive the uprising. In Bahrain specifically, Iran appears to have a number of key assets in play:
Hassan Mushaima of the hard-line Haq movement, believed to be in close contact with the Iranian regime, has played a lead role in escalating the protests and provoking clashes between Sunni security forces and Shia in an effort to brand the conflict in Bahrain as a purely sectarian affair.
According to a STRATFOR source, Iranian cleric Hojjat ol-Eslam Hadi al-Madrasi, head of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, has also been blocking negotiations between the opposition and the government, putting moderate Shia on the defensive by stoking sectarian tensions and demanding no less than the overthrow of the Sunni monarchy. Notably, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain was behind a 1981 Iranian-backed coup attempt against the Bahraini leadership.
Mohammad Taqi al-Madrasi, an Iraqi from Karbala who is now living in Bahrain and whose family has close ties to Tehran, is organizing logistics for the Bahraini protest movement — selecting protest sites; distributing funds, supplies and food; and recruiting protesters to come out into the streets — in coordination with the Iranians, according to a STRATFOR source.
A number of operatives trained in Iran and Lebanon in urban warfare are believed to be mixed in with the various Shiite opposition groups, both in the moderate Al Wefaq and the hard-line Coalition for a Republic, composed of the Haq movement, the Wafa movement and the lesser-known, London-based Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement. According to a STRATFOR source, Bahraini Hezbollah, established in 1985 with the help of Hadi al-Madrasi, has been the premier underground militant organization in Bahrain, operating in coordination with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) Quds Force. Hadi al-Madrasi has allegedly spent the past several years arming and supplying Bahraini Hezbollah through weapons purchases from Iraq. A STRATFOR source claims several IRGC operatives have also deployed on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf under the guise of laborers. The Iranians have experience in supporting proxies like Hezbollah at much greater distances than Bahrain and could increase supplies of arms, materiel, training and other means of support to the hard-line Shiite opposition in Bahrain concealed in the day-to-day flow of commerce and civilian travel. However, the GCC states are cracking down on Shiite movements in Bahrain and are trying to restrict Iran's access to the country. This would be difficult to sustain indefinitely, but it could reduce Iran's options and influence in the short term. Now that the GCC states, led by Saudi Arabia, are making a direct military intervention on behalf of the Bahraini royal family, the Iranian covert action strategy for Bahrain is hitting a roadblock. Iran has a number of dedicated and trained operatives that might be willing to incur casualties in confrontations with Bahrain's reinforced security presence, but the majority of the Shiite opposition in Bahrain is unlikely to undergo great risk unless it has the assurance of an outside backer. The Iranians are now confronted with a number of unattractive options in their efforts to both sustain the momentum of Shiite unrest in eastern Arabia while also avoiding becoming entangled in much riskier overt options. In the case of Bahrain, Iran does not appear to be limited in covert assets, but has a broader strategic dilemma to consider in determining its next moves.