On June 20, Iranian state media published two statements addressing the government of Bahrain over its plans to strip the country’s leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, of his citizenship.
The Bahraini Interior Ministry had issued a statement saying that Qasim had embraced “the theory of theocracy” and was working to divide Bahraini society.
Iranian General Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force, pre-empted the Iranian Foreign Ministry by issuing his own statement at 9am Tehran time. The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a second statement an hour later.
The sequence of messaging demonstrates the primacy Soleimani execises over the Foreign Ministry in regional issues.
Soleimani warned Bahrain that “violating the sanctity of Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim is crossing a red line that will trigger a raging fire in Bahrain and all across the region, and will leave the [Bahraini] people no choice but armed resistance.” He also warned that, if the government of Bahrain continues oppressing its people, the only outcome would be the “destruction of this bloodthirsty regime.”
Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, but about two-thirds of its population follow the Shia branch of Islam. Bahrain is also home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry’s statement was milder, demanding only that Bahrain cease its “illegal” actions.
Who Runs Iranian Foreign Policy?
What makes Soleimani’s threat significant is the timing. He issued it only one day after a change in the top ranks of the Foreign Ministry. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs and Iran’s point man in negotiations over Syria, has just been replaced by Sadegh Jaberi Ansari, who was formerly the ministry’s spokesman.
Hardline media outlets in Iran portrayed the news as evidence of an Iranian surrender to the demands of “Arab Sheikhs.”
Raja News, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guards, wrote that President Hassan Rouhani had sent a confidential letter to Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, inviting him and other Arab rulers from the Persian Gulf region to solve their problems with Iran through negotiations. Raja News wrote that, after the nuclear agreement, Arab rulers know “what negotiations mean” for Rouhani, and that they sent him a “shameless” list of demands, including the dismissal of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
A student branch of the paramilitary Basij organization also issued a statement saying that Abdollahian's dismissal “sends the wrong message to Islamic Republic’s main allies and friends in the region and weakens the "Resistance Front.” “Resistance Front” is a catch-all term that Islamic Republic officials use to describe Iran's strategic collaboration with regional allies opposed to the interests of the United States and Israel. The statement goes on to compare Abdollahian's diplomatic work with General Soleimani’s prowess on the battlefield.
Soleimani likely shares the understanding of hardliners in the Iranian media and believes that the changes in the Foreign Ministry demonstrate the Rouhani government’s interest in changing Iran’s regional policies. Through his statement, Soleimani has demonstrated that he will not tolerate major foreign policy shifts.
In an interview on April 12, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif sought to defend his credentials as a “tough” diplomat. He said that the “resistance front” must be strengthened and that he was working to strengthen it. But Iranian hardliners distrust Zarif and believe that he is laying the groundwork for major changes in regional policies.
Even if the hardliners are wrong, Soleimani’s statement, along with the hardliners’ keen reaction to it, reveal that some of the key players in Iranian foreign policy act outside the control of the Foreign Ministry, and prefer to set the agenda themselves.
President Rouhani’s advisor, Hesamodin Ashna, reacted to the statements on his Facebook page. “This is the first serious challenge to the new deputy foreign minister,” he wrote. He referred to two statements Iran had made: "one about the stripping of citizenship and the second about the stripping of legitimacy.” With regard to “legitimacy,” Ashna appears to be referring to Soleimani’s willingness to undercut the Foreign Ministry.
Such an allusion from a Rouhani advisor might anger hardliners, but they are not going to pay much attention to it. They consider Soleimani the commander of Iran’s policy in the region and are happy that the Quds Force commander has threatened Bahrain, regardless of any consequences that may result from such a threat.