The Iranian ambassador, Jawad Turkabadi, was summoned to the Bahraini foreign ministry yesterday and was handed a formal protest against Iran's "intervening in Bahrain's internal affairs, encouraging, backing and financing elements to engage in subversive activities and terrorism".
Bahrain has in the past protested to Iran against encouraging subversive elements and over unfriendly broadcasts, according to a foreign ministry statement. The ambassador was told that Bahrain had already made the decision "to reduce the level of diplomatic representation between the two nations to charges d'affaires".
"A serious conspiracy has been uncovered which reveals that an organisation known as the military wing of Hizbollah-Bahrain, together with Iranian authorities, have been plotting since early 1993 to undermine Bahrain's security and stability," an interior ministry statement said. This is the first time Bahrain has publicly accused Iran of training and backing terrorists to overthrow the pro-Western government of the Emir, Sheikh Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa. Bahrain is the main finance centre in the Gulf, and the most liberal among Gulf countries. Women drive, work and are not forced to take up the veil. Drinks are allowed in the many bars and clubs, and nationals from other Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries visit Bahrain at weekends.
The Western lifestyle, in addition to Bahrain being the Gulf headquarters of the United States Navy, is anathema to Iran and Islamic fundamentalists.
Twenty-eight people are reported to have been killed in unrest that began 18 months ago and included the fire-bombing of the Meridian Hotel in January. Officials always hinted at "foreign forces" backing the terrorists but never mentioned Iran by name. In private, they nod their heads when asked if they have meant Iran, but have never produced any evidence.
This time Bahrain said it had the evidence, which was presented to the cabinet yesterday. "Confessions made by 29 members of Hizbollah in Bahrain" were made, according to Mohammed Ibrahim al-Mutawaa, Bahrain's Information Minister. The alleged members include the leader of its military wing and the head of its finance committee, who admitted to receiving finance from Iran and planning to bring weapons and explosives to the country.
Mr Mutawaa said the accused - who are among a number of suspected terrorists arrested over the past few weeks - confessed before a magistrate. "They set up the organisation in the Iranian city of Qom in 1993 with the full financial and resources backing of Iranian authorities, the Department of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian Intelligence Service," he said.
Officials said young Bahrainis were recruited and trained in Iran, before moving into training camps in Lebanon.
Small firearms were said to be found in the homes of the accused; but the officials would not say where the arms came from or how they reached Bahrain. The accused are expected to appear tomorrow on the state-controlled television to make full confessions.
Yesterday's decision by Bahrain followed a meeting at the weekend of the six foreign ministers of the Saudi-dominated GCC, of which Bahrain is a member, along with Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The GCC issued a strong statement supporting Bahrain and warning Iran against interfering.
Bahrain has been urging the Lebanese authorities to help cut out support from Lebanese Hizbollah to Hizbollah-Bahrain. Western diplomats say Hizbollah- Bahrain, which was established with Iranian help in 1993, has no direct link with the unrest.
Arab diplomats say Bahrain wants to enlist the support of Syria, Iran's main Arab ally. Bahrain is always sensitive to the policies of Iran's Shia government. The majority of Bahrain's population are Shia but no official figures are available, as such distinction is forbidden.
There has been no comment from the Iranian embassy here.