A vital Arab ally of the United States, the Persian Gulf base of our Fifth Fleet is imperiled, and there is little we can do. Critics of the U.S. and NATO military operations in Libya often ask why there is no similar American intervention in Bahrain, where, in spite of the brutal crackdown on protestors, thousands of predominantly Shi'a demonstrators recently came out for a rally in the district of Saar, just west of Manama, the country's capital. That is certainly a fair question. On a brief note, however, I should like to emphasize that what follows is not to be taken as an argument for or against Western military intervention in Libya. Rather, we should solely be concerned here with whether the U.S. can do anything about the present situation in Bahrain.
Unfortunately, despite the harsh suppression of the protests, it turns out that American intervention in Bahrain of any sort is out of the question for a variety of reasons. First, there are a substantial number of pro-Iranian, Khomeinist Shi'a Islamists in the Bahraini opposition, specifically in the al-Haq party headed by the hardliner Hassan Mushaima. On 8 March, al-Haq announced along with two other groups the formation of a "Coalition for a Bahraini Republic." This move was widely understood by Sunnis throughout the region as both a commitment to removing the royal family and to establishing an Iranian-style theocracy on the island.
Indeed, fears of Iranian designs on Bahrain are not at all irrational, for Iran most recently made a claim to the island in 2005, as it has done so many times before. The idea that Bahrain really belongs to Iran dates from before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. For instance, under the preceding Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a resolution was passed in November 1957, declaring Bahrain to be Iran's fourteenth province. Of course, given Iran's efforts to achieve regional hegemony, a gradual takeover of Bahrain is crucial for the Islamic Republic's ambition to dominate the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Thus, the presence of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain is important for preventing Iran from realizing such goals.
However, the government in Bahrain has not distinguished among the protestors, and has treated all the opposition groups and leaders as revolutionary Islamists. The regime has targeted for detention and torture the more mainstream Shi'i al-Wefaq movement, of which many members are indeed Khomeinists (but not necessarily the dominant faction), and the secular social democrats in al-Waad, whose moderate leader Ibrahim Sharif has also been rounded up as part of a ridiculous mass trial to crack down on the opposition. In fact, al-Waad, whose website and two main offices were shut down by the government, has cautioned demonstrators to be wary of potential Iranian interference. So far, there has been no good proof of the regime's claims of an Iranian plot behind the protests.
Furthermore, 47 medical professionals -- 24 doctors and 23 nurses and paramedics, including some of Bahrain's leading surgeons -- are now on trial, facing baseless charges of hiding ammunition and weapons in the Salmaniya complex in Manama, where many protestors were treated, severely injured through torture in jails or bullets and beatings from security forces in the streets. As organizations like Physicians for Human Rights point out, the confessions used by the prosecution as evidence against these medical professionals have been extracted by means of torture, something that hardly constitutes reliable evidence.
The result of the Bahraini government's approach has been entirely predictable: deepening the sectarian divide between the Sunnis and Shi'a in the country and increasing the prominence and popular support for extremist groups like al-Haq. Although the Crown Prince continues to call for dialogue, he advocates a contradictory strategy of promising reforms while vowing for "no leniency with anyone who seeks to split our society into two halves." One wonders how he intends to pursue dialogue or reform when the government is aiming for the legal dissolution of al-Wefaq.
Were I an advisor to Bahrain's monarchy, I would counsel it to suspend these mass trials of the opposition and medical professionals and sack government officials like the Prime Minister, who has been one of those primarily responsible for the deplorable methods of repression being employed against the protestors. Instead, it should only try figures such as Hassan Mushaima while respecting their human rights. Moreover, the government must enter into a genuine dialogue with the mainstream opposition. The aim ought to be the gradual transformation of Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy that has appropriate, liberal-democratic checks on power, which will prevent al-Haq and like-minded Islamist groups from turning the island into an Iranian province or satellite state.
But here is the catch: Saudi Arabia, which is leading the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) military intervention* in Bahrain, simply will not allow the monarchy to engage in meaningful reform, regardless of whether the latter wants to do so. This is because the Saudis above all fear that any empowerment of the Bahraini Shi'a community will embolden the Shi'a population in the oil-rich eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia to rise up in revolt. Of course, such a development would be especially disastrous for the Wahhabi kingdom's economy and stability. Hence, the GCC (and Saudi Arabia in particular), already angered by the supposed American "betrayal" of Hosni Mubarak, is not listening to Western calls to end the brutal crackdown on the protests. Nor will it tolerate any intervention by powers outside the Gulf area in Bahrain.
At best, therefore, the U.S. and other Western countries can only denounce more forcefully the repression of the demonstrations and the opposition. The U.S. has put Bahrain in the company of Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Zimbabwe on its list of human rights violators to be scrutinized by the UN Human Rights Council. Yet it should not be thought that more condemnatory words have a decent chance of giving rise to true dialogue and reform. Too often, the U.S. is assumed to be the decisive player in crises like the Bahraini uprising. On the contrary, the real power to change the course of events lies in the hands of the Saudis and the GCC.
*It should be pointed out that Qatari troops are intervening in Bahrain, hence the silence of Al-Jazeera's Arabic news channel concerning the protests taking place on the island, besides the anti-Shi'a bias of the program.