Secret talks between Iran and Bahrain have taken place in past months, informed sources in the region have told, describing the engagement as involving “low-profile exchanges.” The revelation comes in the wake of the Mar. 10 announcement by Iran and Saudi Arabia following clandestine negotiations in China that they will reopen embassies by early May.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior regional source asserted that “after the reopening of the embassies in Tehran and Riyadh, there will after a short period of time also likely be a normalization between Iran and Bahrain.” He added to, “There is no serious [outstanding] issue between Iran and Bahrain.”

The “low-profile exchanges” have not been held at the political level. Acting as an icebreaker, the engagement has instead been focused on “administrative and bureaucratic issues,” the senior source asserted, saying that the conditions of respective diplomatic properties and assets have been addressed. Following Saudi Arabia’s expected reopening of its embassy in Tehran, Bahrain will be the only Gulf Arab state without an ambassador in the Iranian capital.

This comes amid indications of a warming of relations between the two neighbors. Bahrain’s parliament speaker on Mar. 13 met with a visiting Iranian delegation attending the World Inter-Parliamentary Assembly in Manama, calling for an expansion of relations.

On the same day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani also indicated hopes for an improvement in ties following the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. He stated, “Fortunately, with the positive atmosphere that we are witnessing in the region, this positive development can happen in connection with other regional countries as well, including Bahrain. We should further trust the path of diplomacy and take steps in this direction.”

Complex web of ties

Relations between Bahrain and Iran are complex and stretch back beyond contemporary politics to the distant past, involving close cultural, familial and religious ties. Former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-79) only gave up Iran’s historic claim to the Shiite-majority island nation in 1970, after more than two years of secret negotiations with Britain.

Pahlavi later accepted a United Nations-sponsored referendum on Bahrain’s future, which led to the country’s declaration of independence in 1971.

Iranian claims to Bahrain have not been limited to the dismantled monarchy; top establishment figures on occasion—and particularly among times of tension—repeat irredentist discourse. For instance, as recently as 2018, the editor of hardline Kayhan daily, a direct appointee of the supreme leader, charged that Iran “owns” Bahrain. On the other hand, Bahraini authorities routinely label Shiite dissidents as “spies” of Iran.

The familial ties between the two neighbors stem from centuries of Iranian southward emigration. The descendants of the latter now make up prominent segments of Bahraini society. Shiites of Iranian origin are referred to as ‘Ajam’—a racial slur for non-Arabs elsewhere in the region—while Sunnis who long ago left Iran are known as ‘hawala’ in plural, or ‘holi’ in the singular.

Political reforms turn into crackdown

While Bahrain’s crackdown on Shiite activists in the years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran forced many into exile, some returned home following reforms in the early 2000s which saw the reintroduction of parliamentary elections. The nation over time saw relative sectarian harmony, with high voter turnout in elections for the lower house. Al-Wefaq, led by moderate Shiite cleric Ali Salman, dominated the legislature, with 18 out of 40 seats.

But the aftermath of Arab Spring protests in 2011 reversed almost all these gains. Facing a popular uprising, the Sunni monarchy requested help from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) promptly sent forces which clamped down on street protests. The military intervention was reportedly the first time that the GCC had used a collective security response to civil unrest.

A worsening crackdown over the following years saw the imprisonment of almost all major opposition figures, including moderate Shiites who had sought political engagement with the authorities. In 2015, Salman was sentenced to four years in jail over his continued support for the demands of the Arab Spring protests and insistence that those behind human rights abuses be held accountable. The following year, Wefaq—the largest Shiite party—was outlawed.

In 2017, Salman faced another trial over what Amnesty International has referred to as “spurious intelligence-sharing charges” pertaining to alleged plotting with Qatar during the 2011 protests. The accusation notably emerged in the context of Bahrain’s decision to join Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—known as the Arab Quartet—in blockading neighboring Qatar over a litany of grievances. Salman was in 2018 sentenced to life in prison for alleged treason and espionage, with the country’s supreme court in 2019 dismissing an appeal against the sentence.

The crackdown reached the highest levels of Bahrain’s Shiite community, with spiritual leader Ayatollah Isa Qassim in 2017 handed a suspended sentence for allegedly illegally collecting funds and money laundering.

Chance for an opening?

The Saudi military intervention in Bahrain was followed by an expansion of Riyadh’s influence in Manama, and the strengthening of forces within the Bahraini monarchy who opposed a political opening at home. In the foreign policy realm, Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in cutting ties with Iran in 2016 over Iranian protesters’ ransacking of Saudi diplomatic facilities following the execution of dissident Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr. Of further note, Bahrain in 2020 joined the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel, with the Israeli foreign minister the following year opening an embassy in Manama.

On the other hand, Bahrain and UAE have in tandem also normalized relations with Syria, a stalwart ally of Iran. The two countries within days reopened their embassies in Damascus in late 2018. Given the announcement of an imminent resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Manama will soon be the only Gulf Arab capital without an ambassador in Tehran. That is expected to change, informed regional sources have told

“I think that Bahrain is not an independent case. Without the approval of Saudi Arabia, nothing can be done between Iran and Bahrain. But now [following the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement], the Saudis have no more reservations,” a senior source in the region asserted.

Changing dynamics within Bahrain have also contributed to the paving of the way for normalization with Iran—and potentially an improved political climate at home. Former prime minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa was known as an anti-Iran hardliner who opposed engagement with the Shiite opposition, viewing it with great pessimism and suspicion. After the former premier’s passing in 2020, the King’s oldest son—Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa—assumed the premiership amid indications of a desire for change.

It is also important to note that the Arab Quartet—including Bahrain—in 2021 ended its blockade of Qatar. The deterioration in relations between Bahrain and Qatar back in 2017 is believed to have been a key dimension to the espionage charges against Salman. Against this backdrop, informed regional sources have alleged to that the King and the Crown Prince wish to reconcile with the jailed moderate Shiite cleric and politician.

“The King and Crown Prince were in 2011 on the cusp of reaching an agreement with Al-Wefaq, but the Saudi intervention ruined it. It should therefore be expected that Bahrain will make use of the new conditions to move back towards an understanding with the moderate opposition and free political prisoners,” the senior regional source emphasized. He concluded, “The late prime minister, who was against the compromise between the Crown Prince and Sheikh Ali [Salman], is gone.”

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