It's three years ago this month that troops from Saudi Arabia entered the island kingdom of Bahrain to help the government there crack down on protests for reform. The violent attack on protesters and the subsequent deaths and arrests by Bahraini security forces pose a test for U.S. human rights policy -- and it is a test the United States is failing.
The Bahrain regime -- a key U.S. ally in the Gulf -- has succeeded in recasting a broad-based movement for democracy into a struggle against Iranian influence. U.S. ambivalence has abetted this narrative and, unless things change, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and has been an American military ally for decades. Stability is critical to the relationship. The king's uncle has been the un-elected prime minister for over 40 years; that's one kind of stability. But when a country's jails become populated by peaceful dissidents -- including some who are there simply for tweets critical of the king -- that is a sign of instability, and should be cause for U.S. concern.
A stable, democratic Bahrain that respects the rule of law is a more reliable partner than a volatile dictatorship. The Bahraini government knows this, so it blames the movement for democratic reform on agents of Tehran, reducing the struggle for human rights to a Shia versus Sunni conflict and claiming that the rights movement has been hijacked by extremists out to establish an Islamic caliphate.
There's no doubt Iran will seek to exploit Bahrain's political chaos. But if the United States -- and the Bahraini regime -- really want to foil Iran, they should be making common cause with those who seek participatory democracy.
Instead, Bahrain is adopting a version of the old Cold War tactic: cast democracy activists as "Communists," and force the Unites States to choose between loyalty to repressive regimes or alignment with a movement for rights with suspect friends. Fearful that the fall of U.S.-friendly regimes would mean a score for the Kremlin, the United States ended up trapped on the wrong side of history in a host of national struggles, eroding American credibility and ultimately fueling instability.
So, despite the fact that the inquiry commissioned by the king into the 2011 uprising produced no evidence of Iranian influence, the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain warns darkly that Iranian-backed Shia activists are behind the protest movement. Meanwhile, many of its original leaders -- including secular democracy activists -- sit in jail.
So far the Bahraini opposition has tried to distance itself from Tehran, an association that would damage their hopes of international acceptance. On my visits to Bahrain, human rights activists told me they have no interest in swapping one sort of dictator for an another. The tragic irony is that the longer Bahrain's political impasse continues, the more likely Iran will have real influence. Lack of clarity from the United States about where it stands in the struggle for democracy will drive activists to look elsewhere for support.
Bahrain's economy is threatened by over-reliance on oil prices and continuing political unrest. As the U.S. State Department country report published on Feb. 27 noted, "The most serious human rights problems included citizens' inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention..."
While some in Bahrain's ruling family profess a commitment to political reform, concrete steps have been either too small or largely cosmetic. Last month's release of human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja is good news, but other charges hang over her head and many other peaceful activists remain in jail. Meanwhile protests have become more violent, with reports of several more policemen killed this month. Civilians casualties are mounting too. The only path out of this crisis is democratic reform; the US sits on the sidelines at its peril.
The Obama administration has largely tolerated the escalating repression; since President Obama's call in May 2011 for the release of political opposition leaders, its public criticism of the regime has been muted, and its modest withholding of arms shipments was temporary (it has, thankfully, banned export of tear gas). Meanwhile, it continues to underwrite sectarianism by equipping a Bahrain military that has virtually no Shia personnel. In December, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that the U.S. was taking "concrete actions" to pressure the regime to lift restrictions on civil society and treat members of the opposition in accordance with the rule of law. But in the face of continued imprisonment of peaceful opposition leaders, it appears to have stopped even calling for their release.
If the United States hopes to counter Iranian influence in Bahrain, it should get serious about pressing for political reform and progress on human rights. Without that, Bahrain's fragile political stalemate will be increasingly vulnerable to manipulation from Tehran.