At least one of three men currently held in Bahrain on subversion charges was trained by Iran, according to an informed source here. Security officials investigating an alleged plot to sabotage oil facilities in the Gulf state suspect that the three-man ``underground cell'' involved in the plot was directed by an official in Iran's embassy here, sources say.
The alleged connection, if true, suggests that Iran is prepared to open yet another front in its effort to punish the Arab states of the Gulf region who support Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war.
The plot was uncovered in early November but officially acknowledged for the first time by the Bahrain government in a Tuesday statement.
The Ministry of Interior accused three Bahraini citizens of planning to sabotage facilities related to the island's 250,000 barrels-per-day capacity oil refinery.
Several supply ``caches'' were found, the government statement said, though the contents weren't specified. The government also said the men had ``admitted their involvement in the subversive act before a judge, following the investigation.''
The three suspects are members of the Shiite sect of Islam, and are said to have been connected with the Tehran-based Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain.
Among those arrested was a low-level engineer working for the Bahrain Petroleum Company, who had been trained in the use of explosives and firearms at a training camp outside the country, sources say. The Bahraini government has not named Iran as having played a role in the plot. But the source said the discovery of the plot has added to tensions between the two governments.
Following the Islamic Revolution, some officials in Tehran openly called for the integration of Bahrain into Iran. Citing historic ties, they argued that Bahrain was a Persian island and should be a part of the new Islamic Republic. In 1981, Gulf security officials uncovered a large plot to overthrow the Bahraini government. Officials said the plotters were members of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, the same Iran-based group to which the current suspects are reportedly affiliated. In addition, they said an Iranian embassy official had played a role in the 1981 coup attempt.
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are already facing direct threats from Iran. Iran has launched missile attacks against Kuwaiti oil facilities and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in speed boats continue to target commercial ships calling at Kuwaiti ports.
Iran has also openly called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family in the aftermath of last July's riots in Mecca in which 402 Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security officers were killed.
In addition, Iranian revolutionary guards have concentrated in recent weeks on stepping up attacks against commercial ships sailing in and out of Saudi ports. The new Iranian focus on Saudi shipping has the Saudis worried. They have asked the United States to expand US warship protection to cover neutral ships in the Gulf's international waters.
Gulf analysts are concerned that Bahrain might become Iran's next target. They say Iran or pro-Iranian Bahrainis may attempt to attack facilities used by the United States Navy in Bahrain, or try to trigger uprisings within the island's Shiite community. The vast majority of Iranians are Shiite Muslims. As much as 70 percent of Bahrain's population is also said to be Shiite, while the ruling al-Khalifah family and most of the business and government elite are Sunni Muslims.
Bahrain government officials stress that contrary to Iranian propaganda the island's Shiites are not a disenfranchised and ignored community. They say that efforts to bridge centuries of distrust between the Shiite and Sunni sects of Islam is paying off: sectarian tensions are easing with greater intermarriage, better jobs, and continued economic development in Shiite villages. In this atmosphere, they say, Iran's calls for rebellion will fall on deaf ears.
There is concern, however, about young Shiites in Bahrain who have been increasingly attracted to the fundamentalist message of the mullahs in Tehran. Government officials stress that the island's huge security service will continue to work efficiently to identify security threats and arrest individuals before they can act.