Iran General Warns of Bahrain Unrest After Cleric Targeted

  • Bahrain stripped Shiite Ayatollah of his citizenship on Monday
  • Soleimani says crossing ‘red line’ would set Bahrain ‘on fire’

Iranian Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Soleimani warned Bahrain against crossing a “red line” after a prominent Shiite cleric was stripped of his citizenship, saying actions against the ayatollah risk setting the island kingdom and the region “on fire.”

Backers of Bahrain’s rulers “should know that insulting Sheikh Isa Qassem and administering disproportionate pressure on the Bahraini people will be the start of a bloody uprising,” Soleimani, commander of the elite Qods force, said in statement published by Iranian state media.

Sunni-ruled Bahrain is a continuous source of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has often accused Tehran of interfering in the island’s domestic affairs. In turn, Iran routinely denounces Bahrain’s treatment of its majority Shiite population, and in 2011, Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to crush Shiite protests demanding greater political rights.

“The Iranian response is in line with that what we have seen in the past,” Glen Ransom, an analyst at Control Risks, said in a phone interview from Dubai. “Iran sees itself as the protector of the Shiite community in Bahrain. I think it is unlikely that this will escalate beyond a rhetorical response.”

The Saudis and Iranians are also clashing via proxies on the battlefields of Syria and Yemen. Their long-troubled relationship deteriorated further when Saudi Arabia executed a top Saudi Shiite cleric in January, and an Iranian mob responded by attacking the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran, leading the Saudis to cut all diplomatic ties.

Crackdown

Bahrain has intensified its crackdown against Shiite opposition groups more than five years after the country’s religious community demanded greater political freedoms during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. Earlier this month, a Bahraini court suspended activities by the main Shiite opposition party Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and froze its assets.

Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday that authorities had removed cleric Qassem’s citizenship for forming organizations affiliated with overseas religious and political groups, according to the state-run news agency.

These actions against “Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassem are a red line that, if crossed, will set fire to Bahrain and the entire region and won’t leave a choice but for the people to take on armed resistance,” Iran general Soleimani said.

“We have seen an escalation by Bahrain authorities over the past month or so 
in what is an ongoing targeting of the Shiite opposition,” said Ransom at Control Risks. “We are likely to see a spike in opposition unrest within Bahrain in response to the escalation.”

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