Bahrain announced the withdrawal of its ambassador from Iran on Thursday and ordered Tehran’s chargé d’affaires to leave, following the discovery of a 1.5-ton cache of explosives allegedly linked to Iran and Hezbollah. The Bahraini decision underscores Iran’s continued regional isolation even as its leaders insist that it seeks to rebuild its relationship with Gulf neighbors based on “peace-seeking efforts” and “win-win” common interests.
On Wednesday evening, Bahraini authorities announced the seizure of large amounts of TNT, C4, and other explosives from a warehouse in a village less than ten miles from the country’s capital and the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. According to Bahrain’s chief of police, “as with previous incidents throughout 2015, the terror suspects hold strong connections with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah.” In retaliation, Iranian officials said Friday that they are expelling the second-in-command from Bahrain’s embassy in Tehran.
In June of this year, Bahraini police announced the seizure of C4, detonators, and advanced circuitry that they said bore clear similarities to the techniques used by IRGC proxies. According to Bahrain’s Interior Ministry, this plot and another the previous month to smuggle explosives across the border were hatched by the Shi’ite terrorist group Saraya al-Ashtar, whose leaders had fled to Iran. The group also allegedly sent fighters for training last year in Iraq with the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, which the U.S. designates as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Bahrain previously summoned its ambassador from Tehran after the interception of a boat carrying nearly 100 pounds of C4, eight Kalashnikov assault rifles, ammunition, and detonators in July. The Interior Ministry indicated that one of the two suspects it arrested in that case had also undergone military training in Iran.
These announcements follow similar developments elsewhere in the Gulf. In the last two months, Kuwaiti authorities disrupted a cell with over 40,000 pounds of ammunition that they claimed had met with two local Iranian diplomats and was spying for Tehran and Hezbollah. On Wednesday, the Saudi-led coalition fighting a rebel insurgency in Yemen announced the interception off the coast of Oman of a ship laden with missiles allegedly bound for Iran’s proxies in Yemen.
According to a coalition spokesperson, the “Iranian fishing boat” was manned by 14 Iranian sailors and carrying 72 anti-tank missiles as well as launchers and guidance systems. The U.S. Navy stated that the ship was not registered to Iran but that it was owned by an Iranian national and is believed to have departed from an Iranian port with the weapons onboard.
At least one of Bahrain’s past accusations against the Islamic Republic has been echoed by U.S. authorities. Last year, the State Department noted that “on December 20, 2013, the Bahraini Coast Guard interdicted a speedboat attempting to smuggle arms and Iranian explosives likely destined for armed Shia opposition groups in Bahrain. During interrogation, the suspects admitted to receiving paramilitary training in Iran.”
This past week’s developments highlight the importance of President Obama’s pledges at Camp David in May to increase intelligence sharing with our Gulf partners and to boost their maritime capabilities to intercept Iranian weapons shipments. They also highlight the importance of Washington remaining engaged in the region so long as Iran continues to seek to undermine its Gulf neighbors.
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg