Iran and Bahrain: Leveraging History for Current Political Needs
IraniX no. 13
Written and Edited by Dr. Raz Zimmt
Iran has recently launched a propaganda campaign accusing the former Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, of abandoning Iran's historic claim to Bahrain. Bahrain recently celebrated the 52nd anniversary of its independence from Great Britain. Numerous billboards throughout Tehran accused the Pahlavi dynasty of 'selling out the homeland,' while senior officials and hardline media condemned the Shah for treason. Although Iran's historic claim to Bahrain is not new, the recent critique of the monarchic regime has been particularly harsh compared to the past. The propaganda attacks on the Shah over the last year reflect the Islamic Republic's ongoing battle against any attempt to clear the name of the monarchic regime against the background of calls for the restoration of a monarchic rule led by the son of the deposed Shah.
On August 15, 2023, Bahrain celebrated the 52nd anniversary of its independence from Great Britain. Simultaneously, the Iranian regime has launched a media campaign, holding the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi responsible for surrendering Iran's historic right to Bahrain. As part of this campaign, Tehran officials have hung billboards throughout the city, mocking the Pahlavi monarchy as 'the homeland seller' (Vatan Foroush). Government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi accused the Shah of handing Bahrain to foreigners. In a tweet on his X (formerly Twitter) account, Jahromi wrote that the fate of 'homeland sellers" working against the Iranian people today would be even worse than that of the Shah. This tweet sparked criticism on social networks, as it included a photoshopped fake image of the Iranian daily Ettela'at from 1971, with a headline claiming that the Shah congratulated Bahrain on its independence after the UN national referendum held in May of 1970, in which the citizens of Bahrain chose to detach from Great Britain.
Conservative media outlets published articles providing the historical background for Iran's claim of sovereignty over Bahrain, accusing the Shah of treason. The news website Young Journalists Club, affiliated with the national broadcasting authority, defined Bahrain's independence as one of the darkest moments in Iranian history, attributing it to British plotting and the Pahlavis' treachery. This website claimed that the Shah incompetently agreed to surrender Iran's claim over this critical area and even told the British that Bahrain was of no importance to his country. Fars News Agency quoted Iranian commentators who claimed that the Shah had no legal right to surrender Iran's claim over this critical area and that he was the primary factor responsible for the chain of events leading to Bahrain's 'tear' from Iran. Their claim was that had the regime been headed by a strong leader willing to use force to realize his nation's historic rights, Iran would not have lost Bahrain, thus gaining significant strategic benefits. Iran's official English media also joined the smear campaign against the Shah. An article in the daily newspaper Tehran Times claimed that Iran had lost Bahrain due to the Shah's ineptitude and the British conspiracy. The Pahlavi regime was portrayed as having failed to defend the national territorial integrity. Mohammad Reza Shah was depicted as the only Iranian leader who voluntarily—and happily—relinquished his country's sovereignty over Bahrain. He initiated the referendum in Bahrain in 1970 despite never having advocated for democracy. He even sent Bahrain a congratulatory note after its independence was achieved.
High-ranking clerics also supported the media campaign. For instance, Abdol Karim Abedini, the representative of the Supreme Leader in Qazvin Province, accused the Shah of treason. In his Friday sermon, Abedini stated that the takeover of Bahrain from Iran was one of the Pahlavi dynasty's most severe acts of treason. He emphasized that the Shah had made no effort to prevent it but willingly handed over a financially and strategically important region to foreign entities. Abedini further asserted that this unforgettable treason severely affected the Shi'ites in Bahrain and Iran's independence, freedom, territorial integrity, and dignity of the Iranian people.
However, this propaganda campaign has sparked criticism regarding the accuracy of historical facts, claiming that Bahrain's separation from Iran occurred in the second half of the 19th century when the Sunni Sheikhs of the Al-Khalifa family achieved British recognition of the islands as British protectorates. This effectively ended Iranian control over Bahrain. Political commentator and regime critic Sadegh Zibakalam emphasized in a media interview that Bahrain had already become independent during the Qajar period before the Pahlavi era. He argued that the Islamic Republic's portrayal of the Bahraini issue lacked integrity and was driven by political motives. Zibakalam stated that no historical grounds exist for the claim that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi surrendered Bahrain. The referendum proved that the majority of Bahrainis were in favor of independence and were not interested in becoming part of Iran. The Shah had no choice but to recognize this. He added that the current Iranian regime often distorts history for propaganda purposes, as seen in other instances like the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911) and the coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1953). Other critics of the government argue that recruiting Iranian government officials, such as the Government Spokesman, for this propaganda campaign is unnecessary and harmful, especially as Tehran strives to improve its ties with other Arab Gulf nations. Abdolreza Davari, a former adviser to President Ahmadinejad, claimed that the government spokesperson had shown political ineptitude and that Iran's claims regarding Bahrain would only generate antagonism in the neighboring Gulf countries.
The Iranian claim for sovereignty over Bahrain is rooted in its historical association with the ancient Persian Empire. The demand for Bahrain's return to Iran was raised in 1927 by Reza Shah during talks between Iran and Britain concerning various disputed issues. His son, Mohammad Reza Shah, later renewed this demand as part of Iran's efforts to expand its influence on the Persian Gulf. In early August of 1954, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a memo to all foreign embassies in Tehran, asserting that Bahrain was an integral part of Iran. Therefore, foreign planes could not land on its territory and transfer passengers or goods to other parts of the country without Iran's approval. Iran's call for sovereignty over Bahrain was reiterated during negotiations to join the defense alliance comprising Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, and Great Britain, known as 'The Baghdad Pact,' in 1955. It was also emphasized during the Suez Crisis of 1956. Iran aimed to leverage increasing Western concerns about the rise of Arabic radicalism to strengthen its regional standing.
In November 1957, the Iranian Interior Ministry submitted a bill for the renewed administrative division of the country to the Majles for approval. This bill proposed recognizing Bahrain as Iran's 14th province. In subsequent talks between Iran and Britain regarding the Persian Gulf, Iran aimed to secure British acknowledgment as a partner and possible heir to its unique status in the area, contingent on withdrawing its forces from the Gulf. However, shortly after the talks began, it became evident that the British were unwilling to discuss Iranian claims to Bahrain. Even after Bahrain achieved independence, the Iranian claim for its Arab neighbor remained part of official declarations by senior Iranian officials. In 2007, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Kayhan, stated that Bahrain was an Iranian province and that Bahrainis were yearning for their reunification with Iran. A similar statement was made in 2009 by Ali Nategh-Nouri, adviser to the Supreme Leader, who referred to Bahrain as the 14th province of Iran. Bahrain's decision to sign a normalization agreement with Israel in September 2020 added tensions with Iran, which condemned the deal and threatened "painful vengeance" from Bahrainis and Palestinians.
Although Iran's historic claim to Bahrain is not new, the conservatives' criticism of the monarchic regime has been particularly harsh compared to the past. This attack is especially prominent in light of recent reports on a thawing of relations between Iran and Bahrain, including talks about the possible restoration of diplomatic ties between the states, which were severed in 2016. The criticism of the Shah's policies can be contextualized within the Republic Regime's campaign over the past year to prevent any attempt to 'purify the Pahlavi name.' This is in response to activities by groups openly aligned with monarchic circles, advocating for a constitutional monarchy in Iran led by Reza Pahlavi, the son of the exiled Shah who resides in the United States. Proponents of the Islamic regime claim that enemies of the Islamic Republic are attempting to rewrite Iranian history to rehabilitate the reputation of the monarchic regime and persuade Iranian citizens, especially the younger generation that their country was in a better state before the revolution. Holding the Shah responsible for Bahrain's separation from Iran reflects the Islamic Republic's efforts to counter open expressions of sympathy for the monarchic regime while rallying the public around national symbols