Middle East

Iran 'set up Bahrain militant cell'

Anti-government street protest
Image caption Some government critics agree that protests are becoming more violent

After months of dropping oblique hints that Iran was in some way behind the unrest in Bahrain, the government there has openly accused Iran's Revolutionary Guards of setting up a militant cell to carry out attacks and assassinations.

Late on Tuesday Bahrain's head of public security, Major General Tariq Al-Hassan, said the targets included Bahrain's International Airport and the Ministry of Interior and that electronic evidence had been collected in the form of computers, flash cards and bank transactions.

On 14 February a 2kg bomb was discovered on the causeway bridge linking Bahrain with neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and three days later the authorities announced they had arrested eight suspects with links to Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah.

Western officials have said they believe the claims to be credible, but opposition figures have immediately dismissed them.

Ali al-Aswad, a former MP from the opposition party al-Wefaq, told the BBC: "Its not the first time the Bahraini government has linked the unrest to Hezbollah. Without independent bodies to investigate we cannot trust what this government says."

Another critic of the government who asked not to be named said street protests were definitely becoming more violent - two people were killed during last week's anniversary of the 2011 uprising - but he said home-grown groups, rather than outsiders, were developing their own arsenals of makeshift weapons.

'Eight-man cell'

At about 13:00 on 14 February, while anti-government protests were gathering pace in Shia districts, the government says a Bangladeshi cleaner discovered a bomb on the Saudi-Bahraini causeway comprising a nine-litre pressure cooker, nearly 2kg of explosives, wires and a mobile phone.

Image caption The government released pictures of what it said was an improvised bomb

It says the device, which was defused by the anti-terrorist explosive team, was intended to target visitors coming across from Saudi Arabia.

Since then, the government says a joint Bahrain-Oman intelligence operation has uncovered what it says is an eight-man cell masterminded by an Iranian Revolutionary Guards member codenamed Abu Nasser, who it says supplied the group with $80,000 (£52,000) to gather information, recruit volunteers and find places to store weapons in Bahrain.

Government officials say the group attended training camps in both Iran and Iraq and that four more suspects are still being sought. It has released photographs of the accused men.

Critics of the government in Bahrain are highly sceptical.

They believe that the idea of a terrorist plot, supposedly financed and directed from Iran, is a convenient distraction from the painfully slow progress towards democracy and equal rights for the country's restive Shia majority.

'Mistaken path'

A National Dialogue on reforms is now under way but is still at such an early stage that it has been described as "talks about talks".

One commentator cast doubt on the name of the alleged Iranian cell leader, saying "Abu Nasser" was an unlikely name for an Iranian agent.

On Monday Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman reacted to reports of the arrests by saying Bahraini officials were "following a mistaken path", adding "they imagine that in this way they can solve the problem they are encountering".

But whatever Iran's alleged involvement in Bahrain's unrest, one thing is clear: there are entrenched, hard-line factions on both sides - government and opposition - who believe they have much to lose if reconciliation talks ever look like succeeding.

Within the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family there are those elements who believe they have effectively defeated the Shia protest movement, and need give up few, if any, of their longstanding privileges.

There is also an increasingly violent, radical wing of the opposition that has no time for political concessions or peace talks with the government.

They too would be most likely left out of the equation if a lasting deal on power-sharing were ever to be struck between the government and the mainstream political opposition.