01/28/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2014

Bahrain Urgently Needs Real Negotiations

For analysts trying to read the tea leaves between the latest twists in Bahrain politics, the signs are confusing. Formal talks broke down earlier this month after the government arrested and charged Ali Salman and Khaji Marzooq -- senior leaders of Al Wefaq, the main opposition group at the table -- for an assortment of politically motivated offenses.

But when the Crown Prince met the two leaders to kick-start a new phase of talks a week later, it appeared he might be living up to his fading reputation as a reformer. In another encouraging move, Salman's travel ban was lifted in what can be seen as a confidence-building step.

However a major difficulty lies in trying to hold meaningful talks in a context of continuing repression. A man shot by police earlier this month died over the weekend, and his funeral triggered violence. (Authorities claim he was smuggling weapons and drove his car at them.) Three days ago, prominent jailed dissident Zainab al Khawaja was sentenced to another four months in prison for an incident in May 2012 where she tore up a picture of the king. Meanwhile, Bahraini activists report continuing arrests and police abuse.

Even if the outside tension subsides, which seems unlikely with the three-year anniversary of the February 14th uprising looming, the talks face serious challenges. The Crown Prince has delegated the responsibility for negotiating to another member of the ruling family. Only some of the opposition leaders are at the table, with other significant figures such as Ibrahim Sharif in jail. As President Obama memorably told the Bahrain government in May 2011 "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail," and it's hard to see how a political deal could stick without the participation of key opposition leaders.

In his new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, former U.S Defense Secretary Bob Gates recounts how he tried to push the Bahrain ruling family towards reform in mid-March 2011: "I suggested to both the crown prince and the king that they find a new and different role for the prime minister, who was disliked by nearly everyone but especially the Shia; lift constraints on the media as well as on civil society and human rights groups; ... move forward in integrating the Shia into the security services and the Bahrain defense force; and promote basic civil rights in the social, media and political arenas."

Gates concludes that his diplomacy was 'ineffective," and that although the crown prince was "the voice of reason... he was powerless."

It's too early to know if this latest Crown Prince-sponsored initiative will lead to progress, but Bahrain desperately needs to emerge from the crisis it entered three years ago; continuing political turmoil is hurting its economy and international standing. This month South Korea stopped a large shipment of tear gas to Bahrain, citing the country's "unstable political situation."

Bahrain needs to drop politically motivated charges against opposition figures, include jailed leaders in negotiations, and hold to account those responsible for torture and other human rights violations. As Gates told the king of Bahrain three years ago, "baby steps won't do... There can be no return to the status quo ante..."