Iran-Sponsored Bahraini Cleric Heralds Expanding Influence of Tehran in Sunni-Led Bahrain

Bahrain has been rocked by unrest since security forces crushed Shiite-led protests demanding a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister in 2011

Murtada al-Sanadi is a cleric exiled from his homeland of Bahrain now living in Iran, where he oversaw a wake for a young terrorist killed fighting Bahrain’s security forces.

Al-Sanadi, designated on March 17 by the United States as a “specially designated terrorist” backed by Iran, spoke at the wake.

“The choice of resistance is widening and spreading on the ground,” al-Sanadi said. He has called for a holy war between the majority Shi’ite Muslim majority in Bahrain and the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa Bahraini monarchy.

“The ceremony shines a light on Iran’s widening influence over an armed fringe of the opposition in Bahrain, a country with a strategic value that belies its small size,” Reuters reported on Tuesday. “It hosts a U.S. naval base and is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival.”

The deceased 29-year-old fighter, Reda al-Ghasra, was shot and killed by Bahrain security forces, who ambushed the speedboat carrying him and fellow fugitives. Just weeks earlier, Ghasra had escaped from a prison in Bahrain where he was serving a life sentence for terrorism, Reuters reported.

Ghasra’s two brothers, both wanted on terrorism charges in Bahrain, attended the wake in the holy city of Qom. Reuters reports that “a confidential assessment by Bahrain security officials, reviewed by Reuters, names Sanadi as the leader of the Ashtar Brigades, a militant group that has carried out bombings and shootings directed at the kingdom’s police.”

That assessment showed that Sanadi had asked Ghasra to form militant cells in Bahrain with Iranian support.

Reuters report noted that an uprising by some in Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority was quelled in 2011 with intervention from Saudi Arabia.

Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei published on his official website in December an editorial written by Sanadi that accused the U.S. of helping repress Shi’ite activism in Bahrain, Reuters reported.

“According to Bahraini security dossiers on Ghasra and Sanadi reviewed by Reuters, Bahraini authorities consider the Ashtar Brigades to be the armed wing of Sanadi’s Islamic Wafa Movement, a political party that is banned in Bahrain,” Reuters reported.

“I’m proud that America considers me an enemy,” Sanadi told Iranian state television in March, according to Reuters.

On March 26, Bahrain’s government announced it had arrested more over a dozen people for allegedly planting a bomb on a police bus after receiving training from Hezbollah and the government of Iran.

The arrests came as reports surfaced suggesting President Donald Trump was considering designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a branch of the Iranian military, a terrorist organization. Iranian threatened to designate the U.S. military a terrorist organization under Iranian law in response.

Bahrain’s interior ministry issued a statement the same day confirming the arrests of 14 people who “are suspected of receiving overseas military training under the supervision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah in Iraq,” according to the Associated Press.