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Rob Sobhani

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Iran's Target: Bahrain

Posted: 10/20/11 04:37 PM ET

In 1892 at the old souk in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, the American Mission Hospital was established. Six years later, American philanthropists opened the American Mission School to deliver quality education to citizens of this Arab nation. A famous Arab proverb symbolizes the struggle these Americans faced in running a hospital and school in the later days of the 19th century: "A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step." Today this 100-year friendship between the island nation of Bahrain and the United States is in jeopardy by the same government that wanted to assassinate a Saudi diplomat in Washington, DC.

One of the fundamental goals of the Islamic regime in Tehran is to overthrow the monarchy in Bahrain and install an Islamic Republic. This has been a goal of the clerics since they came to power in 1979 and as early as last year, an advisor to Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, stated, "Bahrain is Iran's 14th province." In fact, Iran has hijacked the recent protests by Bahrainis for better living conditions as a means to overthrow this pro-American ally.

The key question President Obama and members of the U.S. Congress have to ask themselves is: how can Washington protect Bahrain from Iran and at the same time assist its rulers in their challenge to address the grievances of its citizens? This is an important question because the stability of the energy-rich Persian Gulf is tied to Bahrain. The U.S.-Bahrain relationship is vital to America's energy security and those of its allies. Fully 67 percent of the world's proven crude oil reserves are situated in the Persian Gulf and approximately 30 percent of the daily global crude oil exports pass through the territorial waters of Bahrain on the way to consumers worldwide.

Not surprisingly, Bahrain is home to the US Gulf Naval Force -- the Fifth Fleet -- which is tasked with the strategic goal of maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil. In fact this nation of one million has been a strategic ally of the U.S. since 1947. As the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Crowe once noted, "Pound for pound, Bahrain has been, and continues to be, America's best friend in the region."

The end result of hesitation in extending our unequivocal support to and friendship towards Bahrain at this hour may very well be an Islamic Republic of Bahrain allied with Tehran's ayatollahs. This is a scenario that has to be avoided at all costs. This is a real possibility because while Bahrain's mainstream opposition has legitimate concerns that revolve around jobs, housing and representation in security forces, its more radical elements are being encouraged and financed by the religious centers of Qom in Iran.

I have met King Hamad on a number of occasions. He is a thoughtful and progressive leader who understands the challenges facing his country, "We need to grow our economy so as to create more jobs for all Bahrainis irrespective of their background." The King ascended to the throne in March 1999, and over the past decade has taken huge strides in bringing Bahrain's political development closer to its economic development, by reinstating the national parliament, reaching out to marginalized Shi'a communities, and presiding over an era of greater freedom of speech, government transparency and accountability, and civil society growth. According to the U.S. Embassy in Manama, "King Hamad is committed to fighting corruption and prefers to do business with American firms because they are transparent." This graduate of Ft. Leavenworth U.S. Army Military College is also an equal opportunity employer: He appointed the first woman ambassador to the United States from Bahrain's Jewish community.

What can we do now for our ally who has extended his hand of cooperation and dialogue to his opposition and is being actively undermined by the clerics in Iran. First, President Obama should ask Bahrain's wealthier neighbors to put together a Marshal Plan for Bahrain. This includes demanding its energy rich neighbor Qatar to supply natural gas to resource poor Bahrain at discounted rates. Furthermore, Washington must work with FIFA and Qatar to stage one group event of the 2020 World Cup games in Bahrain. This Marshall Plan must also include fast tracking the Qatar-Bahrain causeway so as to allow Bahrainis to work in Qatar and an interest free loan from the U.A.E. to immediately build 50,000 housing units at a cost of $1.5 billion. Second, Congress must invite King Hamad to Washington to highlight the importance Bahrain plays in U.S. national security. An address to the Joint Session of Congress would be ideal. Third, the U.S. must warn Iran against meddling in the internal affairs of Bahrain by making it very clear that the U.S. will stand by its ally under any and all circumstances.

In short, Washington should ensure that Bahrain remains stable, prosperous and free of Iranian domination.