With attention focused on ISIS and the daily bloodletting in Iraq and Syria; and involvement of American forces in those countries, the rising temperature in the region’s next hotspot is being overlooked.  

Bahrain is the Persian Gulf’s geostrategic hot seat, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, along with around 5,000 sailors and Marines essential to sustaining the U.S. military presence and stability in the region. 


But Bahrain is also the home of a growing Iranian-aided Shia Islamist insurgency targeting the country’s Sunni government. At the moment, the threat is relatively contained. But what will happen if Tehran concludes, in the wake of its new found riches as a result of the nuclear deal, that it is time to turn up the flame? 

On a recent trip to Bahrain, Major General Tariq al-Hassan, chief of Bahrain’s Public Security Forces told me, “We are all waiting for zero hour, but we don’t yet know when it will come.”

Nuclear agreement or not, Tehran’s full-court press in the region shows no sign of relenting, and every indication of gaining steam and momentum toward their objective of acquiring more power and territorial control via their use of sectarian proxy forces to achieve the ultimate goal of singularly dominating the Gulf and kicking Sunni Arab states to the curb. 

Bahrain’s Shia Islamist radicals are not simply a problem for Manama. In violent circles, America is blamed as the facilitator of the Bahraini government’s oppressive policies and a stalwart supporter of an unyielding royal family. On the PR front, the militants have spun a narrative that Washington controls the island state. In order not to let the truth get in the way of a good story, the fact that U.S. diplomats have been thrown out of Bahrain for meeting with opposition figures is conveniently overlooked. 

A Bahraini Shia militant group, Saraya al-Mukhtar, which has taken responsibility for numerous bomb and small-arms attacks, has been quite vocal in in issuing more ominous threats. One August 2014 post released by the group claimed that, “Marines in Bahrain will pay the price” for the Saudi jailing and death sentence of radical Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. In another post that same month, Starbucks, Chili’s, and Manama’s Ritz Carlton hotel were all placed on their target list.

Just a couple of months later, the group claimed to have developed a new rocket munition and avowed it would be used against the U.S. naval base.  In the past four years, their acquisition of weapons material and growing expertise to use it has jumped from building simplistic Boston Marathon bombing-style pressure cooker bombs to the infamous Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP), a bomb which uses an advanced shaped charge to slice through armor. 

The continuous improvement in the radical’s military capabilities has not occurred in a vacuum. 

There are clear examples that Iran’s fingerprints are all over the rise in tactical capabilities and increasingly advanced weapons systems in Bahraini Shia Islamist militant’s possession and the growing numbers of attacks. 

Many of these weapons shipments have been smuggled by Iran into Bahrain by sea, and Bahraini military units have made a number of high profile seizures. The most infamous example was the apprehension of a ship carrying suppresser-equipped Kalashnikov type rifles, more than 50 Iranian-made hand grenades, EFPs, Claymore type IEDs, hundreds of pounds of C4 plastic explosive and a belt-fed machine gun.  

During an independent research trip to Bahrain this summer, I was given exclusive access to weapons seized from one Bahraini dhow intercepted on July 15, 2015, ironically, a day after the announcement of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The ship had sailed out to international waters where it was met by a boat from Iran. Weapons were then passed to the Bahraini boat. The cargo included around 100lbs of C4, detonators, and Kalashnikov type rifles with their serial numbers sanded off. 

Iran is not concealing their vision for the region. Only two days after the seizure, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei announced, “The Iranian nation will not stop supporting the oppressed nation of Palestine, Yemen, [or] Bahrain”.

While security and strategic concerns are pressing issues, the strife in Bahrain also involves another hot potato: Human rights. 

U.S. influence can and should be brought to bear to great effect. If executed properly, the benefits of countering violent extremist elements would multi-dimensional, extending far beyond issues related simply to security. Eliminating violent polarizing elements could prompt and assist with genuine prospects of reform by Manama.  

The key is understanding what the U.S. can leverage. That could result in more extensive U.S. assistance.  

While Washington recently signed off on a resumption of arms shipments to the kingdom, more guns are not necessarily the only solution. What is truly needed is an increased and more extensive sharing of intelligence information, one which can compressively diminish the presence of militant cells.  

Public statements by U.S. officials reaffirming Gulf security and stability, combined with denouncements Iran’s adventurism are required. But lip service is not enough. Actions speak louder than words. The U.S. needs to assess and then address the issues with these Iranian-sponsored elements. 

If Washington continues to avert its eyes from the militant Shia Islamic threat in Bahrain, it will be doing so at its own peril.

Smyth is a researcher at the University of Maryland and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, focused on Shia militant organizations. His study, "The Shiite Jihad In Syria and Its Regional Effects," was recently released by the Washington Institute For Near East Policy. He is also the author of Hizballah Cavalcade on http://Jihadology.net .