March 22, 2017 | Policy Brief

U.S. Sanctions Bahrainis Linked to Iran-Backed Group

The State Department on Friday designated two Bahrainis with ties to Iran as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, thereby denying them access to the U.S. financial system, freezing their U.S. assets, and prohibiting American citizens from conducting transactions with them. The move appears to be a message to Washington’s Sunni Gulf allies that it remains committed to their shared objective of countering Iran’s expansionary regional ambitions.

The designation, issued pursuant to the post-9/11 Executive Order 13224, targets Ahmad Hasan Yusuf and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi of the al-Ashtar Brigades, a Shiite terrorist group that emerged in 2013 calling for the overthrow of Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy. Bahrain hosts America’s most important naval base in the Middle East, home to America’s Fifth Fleet and Central Command’s naval forces.

Friday’s announcement represented a more forthcoming U.S. government position than ever before on Iran’s links to terrorism in Bahrain. In 2014, then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper stated the intelligence community’s collective assessment that Iran “will continue to provide arms and other aid” to Shiite extremists in Bahrain. In 2015, the State Department noted that Bahrain had “raided, interdicted, and rounded up numerous Iran-sponsored weapons caches, arms transfers, and militants.”

But Friday’s designation went further by confirming that Tehran “has provided weapons, funding, and training to militants” in the island nation. It further stated that the al-Ashtar Brigades receives “funding and support” from Tehran and “has claimed responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks” against security targets in Bahrain.

The designation does not constitute a sanction on the group itself, although such a step may now be more likely. The State Department did indicate that Yusuf is a senior member of the Brigades based in Iran and that Alawi is also affiliated with the group. The Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals list seems to indicate that Alawi is also based in Iran.

Friday’s announcement came three days after a meeting between President Trump and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, as well as a meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the United Arab Emirates foreign minister. Both the Saudis and Emiratis have an interest in seeing the group designated: According to the State Department, it has targeted Saudi forces and conducted a 2014 bombing in Bahrain that killed an Emirati officer and two local policemen.

In recent years, Riyadh has watched with concern as Iranian influence has increasingly destabilized Bahrain. Manama has discovered multiple bomb-making factories and terror cells linked to Tehran. Last year, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps external arm the Quds Force, threatened Bahrain with a “bloody intifada” after Manama revoked the citizenship of a leading Shiite opposition cleric.

As important as it is for the U.S. to counter Iran’s terrorist proxies in the region, Washington should also urge Bahrain’s government to stop jailing opposition leaders and disbanding their parties, actions which benefit Iran by closing off legitimate avenues for dissent. The administration was correct to encourage Bahrain in its sanctions announcement “to clearly differentiate its response to violent militia groups from its engagement with peaceful political opposition.”

Still, the U.S. action marks an important new step in bolstering Washington’s efforts to counter Iran’s malign influence in the Gulf. In the coming months, the Trump administration should continue to target additional actors who play a role in exporting Tehran’s revolutionary ambitions.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where David Andrew Weinberg is a senior fellow. Follow them on Twitter @TzviKahn and @DavidAWeinberg