U.S. Designation of Iran-Backed Bahraini Militants Prompts Angry Reaction from Tehran

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Mar 20, 2017
U.S. Designation of Iran-Backed Bahraini Militants Prompts Angry Reaction from Tehran

The U.S. Department of State’s designation of two Iran-backed Bahraini militants as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (S.D.G.T.) has prompted an angry reaction from Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Ministry called allegations by Washington that Tehran supports terrorist activities in Bahrain as “baseless and politically-motivated,” and accused the U.S. government of supporting “despotic” regimes in the Middle East. Bahram Ghassemi, the ministry’s spokesman, also criticized Manama for “seeking help from foreigners and regional countries to ensure its security instead of relying on its own people.”

Ghassemi’s remarks came after the Department of State on March 17 designated Ahmad Hasan Yusuf and Alsayed Murtadha Majeed Ramadhan Alawi as S.D.G.Ts. under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, which imposes sanctions on “foreign persons who have committed, or pose a serious risk of committing, acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.”  A press release by the department added that the designations follow the latest spike in militant attacks in Bahrain and accused Iran of providing weapons, funding, and training to militants there. “This marks yet another step in our continued effort to aggressively target Iran’s destabilizing and terrorism-related activities in the region. We will continue to stand with Bahrain in addressing these threats, even as we encourage the government to clearly differentiate its response to violent militia groups from its engagement with peaceful political opposition,” the statement added.

Comment: According to the Department of State, both Alawi and Yusuf are members of al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB), a militant group that receives funding and support from the Iranian government and has claimed responsibility for several terrorist attacks inside Bahrain – mostly against the country’s security forces. Yusuf is reportedly based in Iran. The terrorist group, based in Bahrain, also targets security forces of other Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. designations also come at a time when the Bahraini government is increasingly worried about Iran’s support for anti-government militants in the Arab island country. Last month, authorities in Bahrain claimed they had dismantled a number of “terror cells” and arrested 20 individuals who reportedly received military training in Iran and Iraq. “As part of the search and investigation that led to the foiling of the fleeing fugitives via the sea to Iran on February 9, a number of terror cells that were about to carry out terrorist plots have been dismantled through a comprehensive security plan,” Bahrain News Agency (BNA) reported.

Recently, Iranian leaders and state-run media, particularly outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), have intensified propaganda and incitement against the Bahraini government. I.R.G.C.-affiliated Tasnim News Agency, for example, wrote last month that the toppling of the Bahraini government was a “public call.”

Iran’s alleged support for Bahraini militants is closely watched by the U.S. military. The United States Navy has had a presence in Bahrain since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, and its Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain – a strategic location that helps the U.S. Navy to ensure the security of maritime activity in the region, support the fight on terrorism, and monitor Iran’s subversive activities across the Middle East.

As tension between Tehran and Washington is escalating over the former’s missile activity and support for terrorism, Iranian officials have recently warned that the country’s military and its foreign proxies would target U.S. military bases in the Middle East if Iran’s security was threatened. “The Fifth Fleet of the U.S. military has occupied a part of Bahrain, and the farthest military base of the enemy is stationed in the Indian Ocean. But these locations are within the reach of Iranian missiles. If the enemy makes a mistake, they will be razed to the ground,” said Mojtaba Zonour, a senior Iranian lawmaker who has also served as an advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to the I.R.G.C. in the past.