Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a key player in Iran’s nuclear deal with the Obama administration, blamed President Donald Trump for the deaths of five Shiite demonstrators in a raid conducted by Bahraini police on Tuesday.
“First concrete result of POTUS cozying up to despots in Riyadh: Deadly attack on peaceful protesters by emboldened Bahrain regime,” Zarif said on Twitter, referring to President Trump’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.
The police raid in question occurred in the town of Diraz, Bahrain, the hometown of Sheikh Isa Qassim. Qassim, the most influential Shiite cleric in the Shiite-majority but Sunni-ruled nation, was convicted this week on charges of corruption and money laundering. Last June, he was accused of promoting violence and stripped of his Bahraini citizenship.
Qassim’s supporters, fearing his deportation might be imminent, have been conducting a sit-in to demonstrate solidarity. The Washington Post speculates that the one-year suspended sentence given to Qassim for the corruption conviction was an attempt to avoid staging a police raid on his home but, evidently, the decision to proceed with a raid was eventually made.
The Bahraini Interior Ministry said Diraz has become a “haven for wanted fugitives from justice.” When the police raided Diraz, a riot ensued, resulting in five deaths plus 286 arrests. Nineteen police officers were reportedly injured.
“During the operation, police authorities came under attack by members of a terrorist cell throwing firebombs, metal rods, knives, and axes forcing the security authorities to respond proportionately,” the Interior Ministry claimed.
The ministry said some of those arrested were “fugitives that had escaped from Jaw Prison,” along with “several terrorists and convicted felons” who were “hiding in the residence of Isa Qassim.” However, Qassim himself does not seem to have been arrested during the operation, based on current reporting from Bahrain.
Iran was not alone in claiming that Bahrain took action against Qassim because Trump’s support at the summit in Riyadh emboldened them. More specifically, Trump told Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa that his relations with the Trump administration would be as “strained” as it was with the Obama administration. Also, the Trump administration has approved a $2.7 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain, without human-rights preconditions imposed by the Obama administration.
“The timing of this operation – two days after King Hamad’s convivial meeting with President Trump – can hardly be a coincidence,” Human Rights Watch asserted.
Bahrain has been criticized for cracking down on political dissent and using excessive violence against protesters, but Iran has also been accused of supporting violent unrest in Bahrain, with an eye toward destabilizing the kingdom. Bahrain is strategically vital as the home port of the U.S. 5th Fleet and will also soon host a British naval base as well.