TEHRAN — Threats issued on Monday by a senior Iranian commander to the Sunni-led island state of Bahrain seemed to indicate that Iran was prepared to support an armed uprising there, after the Bahraini authorities revoked the citizenship of a leading Shiite opposition cleric.
In a statement, the commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the high-profile leader of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, denounced the “mistreatment” of the cleric and threatened Bahrain with “a bloody intifada.”
Bahrain’s leaders have accused the Quds Force of sending weapons to local insurgents, which Iran denies. But General Soleimani’s explosive remarks suggested that Tehran was losing patience.
The action against the cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, “is a red line, and passing this red line will create flames of fire in Bahrain and the entire region,” General Soleimani said. “And the people will have no choice but armed resistance.”
The statement, coming from General Soleimani, who is leading the country’s military efforts in Syria and Iraq, was widely perceived as a serious threat.
“This shows that we have a new strategy of supporting an intifada in Bahrain,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a political analyst close to Iran’s leadership.
The statement also highlighted an apparent rift between the Revolutionary Guards and the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Taraghi said, after the recent ouster of the deputy minister for African and Arab affairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who is close to the Revolutionary Guards.
“Mr. Soleimani’s statement is also compensation for that,” Mr. Taraghi said. “This is all just starting.”
Bahrain, home to the United States Fifth fleet, is highly dependent on Saudi Arabia, a Sunni kingdom and a regional rival to Iran.
Bahrain, a majority Shiite country ruled by a Sunni royal family, the Khalifas, has been roiled by protests since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. At the height of the demonstrations, with their leadership threatened, the Khalifas called on the Saudi military to restore order.
Since then, Bahrain has emerged as a possible point of contention in the Persian Gulf, with protests and crackdowns. The protest movement has publicly distanced itself from Iran, but leaders in Tehran have often lent vocal support.
Ayatollah Qassim, 79, is the spiritual leader of Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the country’s leading Shiite opposition group. The decisions to shut down the opposition group and to revoke the citizenship of its spiritual leader, and the arrests of human rights activists, suggest a new crackdown on the island, analysts say.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting proxy wars throughout the region since 2011, supporting groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, as well as in smaller theaters like Bahrain.
In December, Saudi Arabia and Iran clashed over another Shiite Muslim cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in Saudi Arabia. Hard-line protesters raided the Saudi Embassy in Tehran after his execution, leading to the severance of diplomatic ties.
Tehran has said Iranians will not participate this year in the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The hajj was marred last September by a catastrophic stampede that, according to outside estimates, killed more than 2,400 people. Iran said more than 460 were Iranians, among the biggest losses of any country.
Bahrain’s decisions to suspend Al Wefaq and to revoke Ayatollah Qasim’s citizenship were widely criticized internationally.
The State Department released a statement calling the Bahraini practice of revoking citizenship “deeply troubling.”
It continued, “Above all, we worry that this case, as well as other recent actions by the government, will further divert Bahrainis from the path of reform and reconciliation.”
(via NY Times)