U.S.-Bahrain Relations: A Lesson From History

October 6, 2011

One of the greatest geopolitical and strategic setbacks for the U.S. occurred with the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Not only was the genie of Islamic fundamentalism allowed to rear its anti-American and anti-Semitic head out of the bottle, but America lost one of its most staunch and reliable allies in the region. Today the Kingdom of Bahrain is facing similar pressures to those faced by the Shah over thirty-two years ago and the fundamental challenge for Washington is how to craft a policy towards Bahrain that keeps King Hamad in charge but addresses the legitimate and deep-seated grievances of the majority Shia population. Thirty years ago Washington abandoned its ally in favor of what some called “a saint” and the Ayatollah Khomeini turned Iran into an Islamic Republic and in the process transformed Iran into a state-sponsor of terrorism.

“Pound for pound, Bahrain has been America’s strongest ally in the region.” This statement by a former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff underscores the importance of Bahrain to America’s national security interests in the energy-rich Persian Gulf. And at the same time, the founders of our country, imbued it with a sense of purpose: to be a beckon of hope for people beyond our borders seeking freedom. Luckily for the U.S. America can accomplish both goals if it crafts a policy that balances Washington strategic imperatives with its moral duty to uphold our cherished values.
Failure to construct a pragmatic real-politic policy towards Bahrain may result in consequences not dissimilar to what happened in Iran; Washington cannot afford an Islamic Republic of Bahrain. This challenge to come up with a nuanced and balanced Bahrain policy need not be unilateral. By consulting and engaging our allies in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha, the U.S. can formulate a regional response that assures Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar that Washington is interested in an Arab Spring that produces results not slogans.
Washington must support King Hamad’s offer of dialogue to the opposition in Bahrain but it must also insist that the opposition cooperate. While some in the opposition are in favor of a dialogue, the ayatollahs in Iran have influenced — and in some cases financed — Bahraini opposition. Active Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of Bahrain is neither in America’s interest nor is it in the interest of the people of Bahrain. The U.S. must take a regional approach to its dual goals of supporting King Hamad and addressing the demands of the loyal opposition.
Stabilizing Bahrain by addressing the grievances of its citizens with support of our regional allies can become a model for Washington to emulate across not only the Middle East but around the world. Insisting on good governance in places like Bahrain without advocating change of regime can be a very powerful message Washington can send the entire Middle East and the world.