David Roberts

Big Claims By ‘WSJ’ on Iran & Bahrain. But Proof?

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I have written on numerous occasions about Iran and Bahrain (here here and here). I am neither Bahraini nor Iranian. Nor do I have a gripe with either side. Nor am I a dyed in the wool conservative or a pinko liberal. I try to come at the issue of the Shia in Bahrain, the stalled pearl ‘revolution’ and the question of Iran’s involvement therein as neutrally as possible. I try to caveat what I say and have frequently noted my openness to listen to and evaluate new evidence.

Thus far it is my conclusion that Iran has not played a significant role in the uprisings in Bahrain. There is quite simply not the evidence in the public domain to support such a statement. Which is why I was so interested in this article published in the Wall Street Journal. I was looking forward to reading some critical scholarship or analysis that eschews the tired and typical generalities of nasty Iran.

Alas I was disappointed.

The following is the entire article with my comments underneath. As per my blog’s style, I have commented in a dry and sometimes sarcastic manner. This is not to be mean or disrespectful, but, frankly, it’s a disgraceful article that deserves all the derision it gets.

When the history of the 2011 Arab uprisings is written, Bahrain’s chapter will likely be the most unexpected for a casual reader. Though military rule was lifted in June and widespread public protests have not been seen since March, Bahrain’s place in the region’s upheavals remains deeply misunderstood.

So far, so intriguing. I’d agree to some degree; all of us are operating from behind some kind of veil of ignorance; we don’t know the inner workings of the Bahraini MOI or the King’s mind, so what we do is draw educated assumptions and suggest sensible explanations.

Bahrain is not just another falling domino in the Arab Spring. Nor is it experiencing a surge of spontaneous resistance by its people against their rulers.

There’s no spontaneity to it? At all. None? Not even a bit? Not a tiny bit? A teensy tiny bit? That is a HUGE deceleration to make.

Rather, Bahrain is the victim of a long cycle of intrigue and interference aimed at replacing the moderate and modernizing Khalifa regime with a theocracy under Tehran’s thumb.

And these two things are mutually exclusive? I’d beg to differ.

This spring, as protesters camped out in Manama’s Pearl Square by night and hurled stones by day, Iran mobilized its public-relations teams, which read scripted newscasts denouncing the Khalifa family.

Aaah! The dreaded media wing of the evil Republic! Run for the hills! Not….PR!

Meanwhile, Tehran’s military drafted intervention plans.

Yer what!!?? Proof please.

Though even if one assumes that such plans have been made – which I can well imagine and have no problem admitting (I’m well aware that Iran is extremely far from a benign actor: see Kuwait earlier this year) – I’d personally have thought that they’d have been there for ages. Not, as he directly insinuates, having being conjured up post-Spring.

Western observers and governments took the bait and shied away from addressing the true origins of the violence, instead urging Bahrain to show restraint.

Mmm…because Western states like, oh I don’t know…America…so love to play down the Iranian threat…RI-diculous

The misreading was doubly disappointing given Tehran’s long history of working to upset Bahrain’s domestic stability. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution, the country’s leaders have assumed that their revolution represents the aspirations of Shiites throughout the Mideast.

Okay

That is why they have worked to undermine the Sunni Khalifa family’s legitimacy in Bahrain by promoting an ideology of Shiite empowerment.

Fair enough

When Nateq Nuri, advisor to Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province” in 2009, he was only restating well-worn rhetoric from the revolution 30 years prior.

Indeed

Today there is an intimidating imbalance of power between Iran and Bahrain.

Umm…anyone know of any fleets based in Bahrain? Anyone?? Venture a guess??? Could have sworn I saw a LOT of big grey ships last time I was there.

Iran’s standing military numbers 510,000—roughly two-thirds of Bahrain’s entire population. Bahrain would have little to worry about if Iran were content merely to grandstand and make threatening noises. But Tehran has taken concrete steps over the last 30 years to destabilize and de-legitimize Bahrain’s leadership, both directly and through proxies.

Iranian subversion began in December 1981, when the Tehran-based Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB) attempted a high-profile coup. An Iranian-trained team of Shiite Bahrainis were to simultaneously attack telecommunications services and Bahrain’s airport, and would assassinate key members of the Khalifa regime. In the ensuing chaos, Iran would send in its military and establish a new theocratic regime similar to its own.

I’ve never come across any proof of this, but am willing to believe it…no-one is trying to say that Iran is a cuddly neighbour

The coup failed, but the experience spurred the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which today includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Under the December 1981 Saudi-Bahrain Security Pact, Saudi Arabia placed its entire “potential in the service of Bahrain’s security.”

How chivalrous

That didn’t stop Iran from working to extend its power. But in the late 1980s, Iran overplayed its hand when it started mining sea lanes in an attempt to control the Persian Gulf. Four days after a U.S. frigate struck an Iranian mine in 1988, the U.S. launched Operation Praying Mantis to sweep Iran’s naval presence from both sides of the Gulf.

Having been checked militarily by the U.S., Iran began to deploy more clandestine methods in its quest for regional control. When unemployed Bahrainis rallied at their government’s labor ministry in 1994, Iran filled the country

Hyperbole…much?

With propaganda advocating a Shiite intifada characterized by “democracy” and “equality.” Tehran even offered to mediate as the “Days of Rage” grew in ferocity and Bahrainis faced daily acts of violence in the unrest, which lasted until 1999.

Mounting evidence of Iran’s duplicity prompted the U.S. to permanently station its Fifth Fleet in Manama in 1995. Taking the move as a provocation, Tehran intensified its intifada

Curious phraseology

and began training Bahraini Shiite fighters in Iran.

Proof? But again, I’m willing to suspect that some folks were indeed so trained. (My only point being that this is not rock-solidly ‘true’)

Among other efforts, Tehran established a military wing for Hezbollah in Bahrain, which attempted another coup in June 1996. Bahraini authorities thwarted the plot only by preemptively arresting dozens of suspects, and the kingdom continued to operate under de-facto martial law that didn’t end until 1999, when Sheik Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa died and his son and successor took over the kingdom.

The new King Hamed bin Issa Al Khalifa promptly ordered an end to emergency rule, instituted a general amnesty for political prisoners and reestablished Bahrain’s popularly elected Shura Council. But while many hoped that Hamed’s gestures would ease Bahrain’s religious tensions, the liberalizations only saw the Shiite community become more militant.

…and they had no grievances about which to agitate?

The current uprising, or so-called Pearl Revolution, in fact did not begin this year but dates back to 2008, when Bahraini authorities arrested senior Shiite clerics accused of conspiring against the government. The sporadic violence that ensued culminated in still another attempted coup. Then in December 2008, 14 people were arrested on suspicion of planning a series of terror attacks against commercial centers, diplomatic missions and night clubs in Bahrain.

Proof?

The arrests unleashed still more violence. It was against this backdrop that Iran’s Mr. Nuri called Bahrain Iran’s “14th province,” a statement greeted by joyous chants of agreement from Bahrain’s Shiites.

All of them? Every last one? All chanting in unison? Were you counting? How are you judging whether a chant is joyous or not? Or merely merry? How about elated or just loud? And what exactly does this mean? What level of support does this denote?

Despite such revanchism, in the spring of 2009 Hamid declared another amnesty,

What a guy.

…this time pardoning some 170 prisoners who had been charged with endangering national security, including 35 Shias on trial for allegedly trying to overthrow the government. Normally, this would provide space for reconciliation. But again, Iran’s efforts to push Bahrain into full-scale civil war have kept tensions hot.

***

Thirty years of intransigence

An interesting word choice. One with which I’d agree. But ‘intransigence’ is not exactly explicit, direct and persistent interference, now is it?

…reveal the extent of Tehran’s determination to turn Bahrain into an Iranian satellite.

Of course Tehran would love to have Bahrain under its fold. I don’t disagree.

So Iran’s machinations during this year’s protests should have had the international community rushing to support Bahrain, not ostracize it.

Aaah…the crux. The key bit. The core. The proof. The evidence. The schizzle. The skinny…what machinations? What? Specifically? Literally? Explicitly explain what machinations you’re talking about. Using real evidence, what have been Iran’s machinations? This is T H E  key question. One which has not even been remotely touched upon in this article.

Instead, too many decision makers were still lost in the rhetoric of the wider Arab Spring. The specifics of each country are whitewashed in favor of one simplistic mantra: that the Arab peoples have been oppressed by their leaders and want democratic reform.

Most have…most do.

This is only partially correct in some cases and fundamentally erroneous in Bahrain.

So you are explicitly saying that there has been no oppression by Bahrain’s elite on the Shia? This is factually what this paragraphs says. This is a bold, bold claim and one that ignores a wee mountain of evidence

Instead of simply reading demonstrator’s placards, leaders need to understand the country’s history. Bahrain is in the midst of an existential struggle against a vastly superior foe. Meanwhile, in Iran, the international community is content to listen to calls for moderate reforms coming from immoderate ayatollahs.

Nice word play at the end.

All in all this is a shockingly bad article. For several reasons

Agency

Are the Shia in Iran incapable of doing anything themselves? Are they unable to resist the lure – the moth to the flame – of Iran’s calls? Are there no issues with Bahrain’s Shia looking to a significant degree to Najaf and Karbala?

While some may look to Iran as the leading/only Shia state to some degree, what does this mean? That they support the Iranian football team? Prefer Persian food? Will martyr themselves for Ahmadinejad? Or…well…nothing at all. My point is not that all Shia do not take orders from Iran; surely some do but what is equally sure is some do not.

And here I’d look to the instructive example of the Iran Iraq war. Shia versus Shia in brutal trench warfare replete with chemical weapon attacks. By this kind of absurd narrative one would expect the Iraqi Shia to down tools and join their Shia brethren in Iran; after all Khomeini was in his revolutionary pomp. Yet did this happen? Not at all. They killed each other by the hundreds of thousands.

While Iraq is obviously vastly different from Bahrain, this example is just to show that this dialectic is vastly more complex than Iran clicks its fingers and the Bahraini Shia jump. Which is exactly the kind of simplistic assumption that underpins all such ridiculous articles.

Facts on the ground

I think the author needs to do a bit of wider reading regarding the Shia situation in Bahrain, particularly regarding socio-economic disenfranchisement.

Proof

I realise that at times we (us outside of governments) do not have access to grade A proof, should such a thing exist. But when one is making such accusations as in this piece, it is incumbent, at the very least, for the author to be specific.

I wholly agree that – or rather, as far as I know – Iran has a sporadically nefarious history with Bahrain. And that this fact should inform – but not cloud – our assumptions and research subsequently.

But when beginning discussing the Pearl Revolutions and Iran’s role therein, we need to be honest and note that – thus far? – there is simply no evidence of Iran’s involvement. Printed stories in Iran just do not count as anything more meaningful than a bunch of printed stories. Is that it? Is that the proof of Iran’s involvement: journalist witterings?

I’m not trying to be obtuse; I understand that Iran have a vested interest in upsetting the status quo in Bahrain and have, it seems, a history in this; but this is a serious accusation, and ‘form’ or, to put it another way, circumstantial evidence, just will not do.

2 Responses to Big Claims By ‘WSJ’ on Iran & Bahrain. But Proof?

  1. Anony 10/10/2011 at 6:30 PM

    A truly amazing response. The writer flaunts his own ignorance of the Gulf’s history and politics. The most obvious example is that he says he’s ‘never come across any proof’ of the IFLB attempted coup in 1981. The coup plotters were caught red handed, their weapons caches were dug up and the people involved admitted their part. It was reported at the time in the international media and since then hundreds of books (one or two which Roberts might have read) refer both to the coup and Iran’s relationship with the IFLB. We’re into the realms here of questioning the moon landings type scepticism if he believes there was no coup or that Iran wasn’t central to the plot. Do you also question whether Bin Laden was responsible for 911, because, like, there was no absolute proof of that either? This is the dismal level of reasoning on display here.

    The proof of Iranian involvement’s been out there for ages. It’s already been made public. Ahmed Chalabi who was outed as Iranian intelligence officer in 2006 is advising Bahrain’s opposition on its political strategy. There’s one example. Why doesn’t David Roberts mention this? Is it because he’s not aware of it? This is the sort of information that Roberts should be including in his article, not for him to have to hear about it through reading the blog comments (if he bothers).

    No one’s saying that the whole Bahrain debacle is a result of Iranian machinations – the shooting of the protesters by the PM’s men was totally insane – but to act with this sort of total scepticism to any evidence of Iranian involvement sounds plain stupid.

  2. Yousef Ali 10/10/2011 at 3:37 PM

    How can a reputable outlet like the WSJ print such blatant lies and garbage – unless they are being paid by the Bahraini government.

    The Bahraini government is spending millions in a PR campaign to blame anybody buy themselves – they recently hired Howard Deen’s (Vermont) ex-campaign manager for this purpose.

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