The Iranian regime has launched a propaganda campaign to blame the late Shah for losing Bahrain as part of Iran, but it was actually lost a century before.
Tehran’s municipality controlled by Regime hardliners has installed numerous billboards across the capital accusing the Pahlavi dynasty — the last monarchs of Iran — of “selling out the homeland,” a claim that is historically wrong but indicative that the regime feels threatened by popular nostalgia about the Pahlavi era.
The regime’s propaganda line is also echoed by several officials, such as government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi, who shared a collage of news pieces dating back to mid-August 1971 when Bahrain declared independence. However, the independence was not from Iran; but from the United Kingdom.
Bahrain was a dependency of the Persian Empire when in 1783 the Bani Utbah tribe led by Al Khalifa invaded the territory from their base in current-day Qatar. Ahmed ibn Muhammad ibn Khalifa — the progenitor of the dynasty, known as Ahmed the Conqueror, expelled the Iran-installed governor. His successors kept Bahrain under their control over the next decades, and Tehran’s loose grip was completely lost in 1861, when Britain acknowledged Al Khalifa family as its rulers.
Since the treaty with Britain, until independence in 1971, Bahrain was virtually a British protectorate, where the British king was the supreme authority and members of the Sunni Muslim ruling family held the main political and military posts. Although August 15 is the date when Bahrain gained its independence from Britain, the kingdom celebrates December 16 as its National Day, the date of Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa’s ascension to the throne in 1961.
The Pahlavi dynasty, founded by Reza Shah Pahlavi, replaced the Qajar dynasty in 1925. Since then, both Reza Shah and after that his son Mohammad-Reza Shah tried to reclaim Bahrain and negotiated with the British on several occasions but to no avail. Different Iranian governments and the Pahlavi kings themselves repeated the claim over Bahrain and even passed a bill in 1957 to officially announce Bahrain as one of the provinces of Iran, but in practice the legal status of the Arab-majority archipelago remained the same.
Mohammad-Reza Shah, who was also engaged in a similar battle for three Iranian islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, finally announced during a trip to India in 1969 that if the people of Bahrain were not willing to become part of Iran again, Tehran would withdraw its territorial claims. The Shah emphasized that Iran is not seeking to use force for the annexation of Bahrain. “I want to say that if the people of Bahrain do not wish to join our country we shall never resort to force, because it is against the policy of our government to use force … Our policy and philosophy is to oppose occupation of other territories by force.”
Following a United Nations survey – a controversial poll sometimes referred to as a “referendum” — on whether islanders preferred independence or Iranian control, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 278 on May 11, 1970, and subsequently Bahrain became independent from the United Kingdom. Despite opposition by several Iranian lawmakers at the time, the government accepted the decision and Iran was the first country to congratulate Bahrain for its independence in August 1971.
About three months later, the Imperial Iranian Navy seized the three Persian Gulf islands shortly after the withdrawal of British forces from the Persian Gulf while the Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah claimed the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and the Emirate of Sharjah claimed Abu Musa. Both emirates then acceded to the newly formed United Arab Emirates, but they still reiterate claims over the islands every now and then.
Today, the Islamic Republic regime does not talk about the historical events that led to the independence of Bahrain and only uses it as a ploy to tarnish the Pahlavis, whose popularity has been rising again among the Iranians. During anti-regime protests – especially the current wave sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody – people chant in support of late kings Reza and Mohammad-Reza, while the exiled prince Reza Pahlavi has become a leading opposition figure touring the globe to make the voice of Iranians heard.
The smear campaign against the Pahlavis is in line with the regime’s new tactics of soft war, labeled by Iran’s ruler Ali Khamenei as ‘vindication jihad’ (jihad tabyyin). In recent years, Khamenei has applied the phrase to efforts both in the media and on social media platforms to provide new interpretations – as well as fake history in case of Bahrain – to portray the regime better than what it really is.