Sunday, January 5, 2014

Bahrain's Smoking Gun (Boat)

For the last three years, the Government of Bahrain has expended no little energy attempting to convince international observers that opposition activists driving political unrest are doing so, not for any desire for democratic reform, but at the behest of Iran and its regional ambitions. Indeed, such was the message of King Hamad's April 2011 apologia in the Washington Times: that the state's crackdown was necessary because "the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region."

Unfortunately for King Hamad, few governments outside the Gulf were convinced by his argument, and though Bahrain claimed to have tangible evidence of such Iranian subversion and support for Bahrain's increasingly violent informal opposition, it ostensibly refused to divulge it for reasons of national security. Yet, given that Bahrain's national security is a direct function of Western, primarily U.S., military support, such a response was taken to mean that Bahrain in fact had no convincing evidence.  In the absence of a "smoking gun," then, the resulting dialectic -- Bahrain crying Iranian wolf, the State Department acknowledging its ally's concerns without actually validating them -- has persisted more or less until today.

Consider, for instance, the recent words of Elliot Abrams, who wrote only a week ago to some fanfare,
I am fully aware that there is a deep fear of Iranian subversion in Bahrain, and that some acts of protest can cross the line into actual criminal behavior – in Bahrain as everywhere. But if the government of Bahrain cannot distinguish between genuine protest and foreign subversion, and responds to criticism with jail sentences, one can only expect that 2014 will be even worse than 2013 for human rights and domestic stability.
What Bahrain needed, then, to say it again, was a smoking gun -- to catch Iran red-handed in some act of subterfuge, preferably in association with (Shi'a) Bahraini citizens, that would finally "open the eyes" of its faithless and gullible Western patrons.

Well, at least from the standpoint of the Bahraini government, that day has come.  On Monday, Bahrain claimed to have foiled simultaneously around 34 terrorist activities involving not only Iran but individuals from every Shi'a-majority country on Earth.  As I understand it, the initial operation involved the capture of two separate boats, one located and followed as it approached from "118 nautical miles off north eastern Bahrain, in international waters" [i.e., from Iran, by implication] to the Shi'a village of Karranah. The Gulf News summarizes,
[I]t was seized at 4.50 pm, around two nautical miles away from the coast of the Karranah village. The target was a 29-foot boat with two 200 horsepower engines. Two Bahrainis were on board. ...

The police seized 38 C4 explosives, 31 Claymore blocks, explosive material to be used against individuals, 12 EFP armour-piercing explosives, six explosive devices containing magnets, 30 Nokia mobile phones, with batteries, a Thuraya satellite phone with a SIM card, and 29 circuit boards to be fixed on mobile phones to set off bombs.

The Coast Guard also seized a PK machine gun and 12 cartridges, a large number of machine gun bullets, two boxes containing a large number of ignition capsules, three explosive fuses, 50 Iranian-made hand bombs, 295 “made in Syria” commercial detonators and C4 and TNT explosives.
Apparently, two of those arrested "spoke the Iraqi dialect."

On the very same day, the coast guard also apparently stopped an outgoing boat, again from Karranah, smuggling 13 terrorist "fugitives," including a Saudi national, to Iran for training by the Revolutionary Guard. The BNA tells that "The accused confessed that they had joined the group to ... commit terrorist acts with religious motivations from their points of view."

Separately, police say they busted a weapons warehouse in al-Qurrayah south of Bani Jamra, and also defused a "car bomb" in Manama.  (For even more details, see this lengthy Thursday press conference with Tariq al-Hasan.)

Indeed, the state's success was so great that it even prompted a patented Al-Watan terrorist network flowchart, which is when you know you're definitely dealing with some serious terrorist shit. This particular flowchart identifies 10 individuals, including a top tier of "leaders" said to reside in Iran or Iraq.  Interestingly, included in the descriptions are individuals' employment details.  Many are reported to work in the public sector.  Presumably the message is something like, "Look, the state provides their livelihoods, yet they collaborate with foreign governments."

As always, it's difficult to know what to make of this.  It seems odd that a group trained by Iran's most elite paramilitary force would attempt to sail into Karranah in the middle of the afternoon -- rather than, say, at night -- and, further tempting fate, launch another even more conspicuous vessel in the opposite direction just as the other was set to arrive.  On the other hand, it's not unthinkable that there should be some attempt to smuggle arms into the country and fugitives out of it, so it would be silly to dismiss the episode entirely.

It must be said, however, that Bahrain's seeming breakthrough after three years of (one assumes) hunting for substantive evidence of Iranian involvement with the opposition comes at a very opportune time for it -- and, notably, for critics of the Iranian nuclear deal everywhere.  Not only does it help Bahrain make its increasingly sweeping legal and diplomatic case against opposition activists -- including, by association, members of the formal opposition like 'Ali Salman -- but it proves that Iran is negotiating in bad faith by continuing its interference in Arab Gulf affairs while claiming to want peace and international cooperation.

Thus, for instance, Elliott Abrams, whose tone has changed markedly from his criticism of King Hamad a week ago. Bahrain's newest terrorist discovery proves that "Iran continues subversion despite the nuclear negotiations." He asks, "Is this just propaganda from the Government of Bahrain? No; I’ve checked with US authorities and these reports are accurate."

Not convinced?  Well, he's also checked with Mitchell Belfer, whose definitely-not-propaganda piece "The 'Who' and the 'Why' of the Plotted New Year’s Eve Massacre in Bahrain" authoritatively confirms Abrams' vague anonymous sources. (Honestly, at this point Bahrain ought to pay Belfer not to write.)

I'll end by noting one additional item, which beyond a tweet by Toby Matthiesen seems not to have garnered much attention.  In an otherwise ordinary "looking forward to 2014" sort of article earlier this week, Reuters offered previously-unreported details of the mysterious July 17  "car bomb" in Riffa.  Though it caused no injuries (and indeed detonated at a time when no one was present), Reuters describes how the incident sabotaged nascent talks between the opposition and Crown Prince Salman:
While the two sides remained apart on many big issues, the talks began and some sort of deal appeared possible.

Then, on July 17, a car bomb exploded in a carpark outside the Sheikh Isa bin Salman Sunni mosque in Riffa, an area where many members of the ruling family and armed forces live.

There were no casualties. But the blast undermined the Crown Prince's efforts to push political and economic reforms, instead strengthening hawks inside the Al Khalifa family who see Shi'ite protests as a threat.

"The Crown Prince was hunkered down. He has to be seen to be tough," said one Western diplomat. "Since then it has been hard going."
Update: Hello, Mitch Belfer! Please share your insights.

Update 2: One thing that won't be smoking in Bahrain is South Korean-made tear gas. Citing "unstable politics in the country [Bahrain], people’s death due to tear gas, and complaints from human rights groups," South Korea has joined the United States and Britain in halting sales. This appears to be a relatively rare if welcome success by Bahrain Watch and other campaigners to change the behavior of Bahrain's economic and political partners. Bahrain's choice of tear gas supplier now is limited to the mere dozens of arms exporting nations unconcerned by such human rights trivialities.

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