The Bahrain government, known for its heavy-handed tactics, particularly since the Arab Spring of 2011, has in recent years revoked the citizenships of at least 179 people, many of which are Shia Muslims of Persian [Iranian] descent.
These individuals, according to the government, are guilty of terrorist activities, and as having as specific ties with Iran. But human rights organizations say the allegations are baseless for all but a few cases.
“The majority of the people who lost their citizenships are just regular Shia academics, human rights activists, lawyers, clerics and business people,” says Mohammed Altajer, a Bahraini human rights lawyer who represents many of the country’s stateless people. “They’ve done nothing wrong.”
Being stateless means they can no longer work in Bahrain, so they struggle to support themselves and their families. They are prohibited from accessing the country’s health system, schools or universities and many other things. As the authorities have confiscated their passports, they are unable to leave the country.
In Bahrain, more than two-thirds of the population are Shia, while the Al-Khalifa family, which effectively runs the country through governmental appointments, is Sunni.
Before 2011, Sunnis and Shias coexisted peacefully in Bahrain but sectarian tension and discrimination against Shias has increasingly grown since then. One way that they have been victimized is through the revoking of citizenships; most of the Bahrainis that were made stateless are Shia, and many among them are ethnically Persian.
The government sees the Bahraini Shia, and particularly those of Iranian heritage, as being loyal to both Bahrain and Iran, and in turn as a potential Iranian fifth column in the country.
“The Sunni regime feels threatened by the Shia in Bahrain. They’re worried they’ll try to take power and overthrow them,” says human rights lawyer Altajer. “But it’s a figment of their imagination.”
In 1981, the Islamic Front for Liberation of Bahrain, an Iranian-backed Shia militant organization, attempted to stage a coup. Ever since, the government has been wary of Shia organized groups. The failed coup was launched just two years after the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, swore to export the revolution to other parts of the region. As a predominantly-Shia country, Bahrain was an obvious target.
“Many of the stateless Bahrainis are of Iranian origin,” explains Nedal Al Salman of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “The government feels doubly threatened by Shias who are originally from Iran.”
She adds, “But it’s worth remembering that these people have been in Bahrain for over 200 years so they very much consider themselves as Bahraini. That’s longer than the Al Khalifa family.”
The Al Khalifas came to power in Bahrain during the 18th century after they overthrew the Persian rulers in power at the time.
“Shias of Iranian descent are punished even more harshly by the regime than the Arab Shia,” says doctor and activist Saeed Shehabi, who lost his citizenship in 2012. “And given relations between Bahrain and Iran are at loggerheads, it’s only going to get worse. They’re very much at each others’ throats at the moment. There’s a Cold War. “
Relations between Bahrain and Iran have worsened in recent months, beginning with in July 2015, when Bahrain recalled its Tehran ambassador, Rashid Saad al-Dosari, after he allegedly made repeated hostile statements in Iran. At the same time, Bahraini authorities said an arms smuggling plot by two Bahrainis with ties to Iran had been foiled, with suspects admitting to receiving weapons from Iranian handlers.
Then in October 2015, Bahrain accused Iran of waging a campaign of “state-sponsored terrorism” aimed at overthrowing the monarchy. Bahraini officials say Iran provided sanctuary and financial support to terrorists planning attacks in the country, and that numerous Bahrainis had been trained in terrorist camps operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
“We are fighting state-sponsored terrorism,” said Sheikh Khalid during a visit to London in October. “There are cells operating in Bahrain that report directly to their superiors in Iran.”
Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have also accused Iran of interfering within Bahrain, although there is little evidence to support this.
One of the things Bahraini officials believe is that Iran is behind the pro-democracy movement of 2011 and trained Shia opposition activists for it. But an investigation by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which was set up to look into human rights abuses committed in Bahrain in early 2011, found no evidence to back this up.
Iran denies interfering in Bahrain, but it does admit to supporting opposition groups seeking greater political and economic rights for the country’s Shia people.