Iran flexing its muscles

Ahmed Mustafa
Tuesday 7 May 2024

With an Egyptian-mediated truce for Gaza on the horizon, Iran claims that a Bahraini opposition group it supports attacked Israel, reports Ahmed Mustafa


All parties involved have expressed hope that progress in the truce talks in Cairo could bring the war in Gaza to an end, at least as a first phase with the release of Israelis held by Hamas. Egyptian mediators, along with American officials led by the CIA director, are pushing for a multi-phase deal that guarantees an end to the war at its final stage. That would be a huge breakthrough ending more than seven months of Israel’s genocidal war that has left tens of thousands of Palestinians dead and many more wounded.

While diplomatic efforts are at full swing, a sudden development was cited last week that poses a threat to de-escalation. An Iran-linked Bahraini armed group claimed a drone attack on Israel, opening the door to a wider regional conflict. On its Telegram channel, the Al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB) – Saraya Al-Ashtar in Arabic – posted about “targeting” a site belonging to the Israeli company Trucknet in southern Israel’s Eilat (Umm Al-Rashrash). The group said the attack was launched in support of Palestinians in Gaza.

There was no confirmation of the attack from Israel or any other party, but almost all Iranian media and other outlets close to Iran in the Arab world published the news. It was more of an embarrassment to Bahrain than a threat to Israel. The country had signed a peace treaty with Israel, as had the UAE and Morocco, in 2020 in what is known as the Abraham Accords. The attack claimed by the AAB perhaps highlights mixed feelings regarding normalisation of relations with Israel among the Bahraini public and by extension many in the Gulf.

Even the choice of the claimed target of the alleged AAB attack was not haphazard. According to media reports, Trucknet Enterprise Ltd. is an Israeli software startup that has been sending goods from Gulf ports to Israel via overland routes since the start of the Gaza war. Some firms are seeking alternative routes through the Suez Canal due to attacks by Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen on ships in the Red Sea.

Maybe that is why the Bahraini News Agency (BNA) quickly quoted the official spokesperson for the National Communication Centre Mohamed Al-Abbassi confirming “that the Kingdom of Bahrain classifies the Saraya Al-Ashtar group, which operates outside the kingdom, as a terrorist organisation”. Al-Abbassi added that “this designation has been shared by several countries, including the United States of America and the United Kingdom.”

The definition of the group by the US Office of the Department of National Intelligence is as follows: “Al-Ashtar Brigades (AAB) is a Bahraini Shia militant group that plans and commits terrorist attacks against the government of Bahrain with Iran’s assistance.

“The group emerged in 2013 when it split from the 14 February Youth Coalition, Bahrain’s oldest Iran-aligned Shia militia. AAB seeks to overthrow Bahrain’s monarchy and has claimed at least 20 attacks in Bahrain, some of which caused fatalities.”

The AAB has faced sanctions in the past, in both the UK and the US. In March this year, the State Department said it had sanctioned three members of the terrorist group. “The Department of State designated Saraya Al-Ashtar as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation and Specially Designated International Terrorists in 2018. The Department of Treasury took action under Executive Order 13224, as amended, targeting terrorist groups and their supporters.”

Though other Iran proxies in the region had joined the conflict since the start of Gaza war in October last year, this is the first time a Bahraini group has claimed an attack on Israel. The Lebanese Hizbullah, the Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen have all been active in targeting Israel and its interests in the face of its aggression on Palestinians.

Indirect American messages to Tehran have been calling for de-escalation, even after the direct drone and missile attacks between Iran and Israel in which Israel bombed the Iranian Consulate in Damascus. There were signs that all parties implicitly agree on not expanding the conflict. But the recent alleged attack, along with the Houthis’ announcement that they would not stop targeting Israel-linked ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, are a major concern.

The real fear is that if Egypt manages to get a truce deal through, any escalation by Iran or its proxies could derail the efforts to stop the war, giving Israel a pretext to continue its aggression against Palestinians. Yet Andrew Hammond of Oxford University plays down that concern.

“I don’t think Iran will take any measures to spoil it. It’s unlikely they were aware of the October 7 operation in the first place. On the Lebanese border, I don’t think it’s a question for Hizbullah alone, but there will not be peace for those Israeli residents to return home until the ceasefire is permanent. For the Houthis too, if Israel is not letting in aid and the ceasefire is not permanent then I doubt the Red Sea will return to normal. Only a full end to the Gaza war will do that,” Hammond told Al- Ahram Weekly. “There may be a respite for some days in Houthi attacks, but there have already been periods of calm. I don’t think they’re acting on Iranian orders anyway though. They are their own master.”

All eyes are now focused on Cairo and whether negotiations can successfully bring the war to an end. An essential part of this success depends on Iran and the pressure it exerts on its proxies to maintain any anticipated agreement. This is equally important for depriving Israel of any excuse to renege on its commitments, which it has a strong history of doing.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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