Last month, a bipartisan group of scholars and former policymakers signed onto a letter expressing opposition to a new arms sale to the Arab island nation of Bahrain given that country’s crackdown this past spring on largely peaceful protesters:
We were pleased to see the delay of the recently proposed sale of arms to Bahrain, and we hope that no sale of items that could be used to repress the Bahraini people will move forward until reforms are agreed to, implementation has begun, and the Bahraini government has clearly ceased using torture and violence against its own people.
In response to the violence, the Bahraini government launched the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry which shortly before Thanksgiving released its findings. Rather than whitewash the abuses that occurred as government security forces confronted Bahraini protesters, the Commission took its job seriously and called for real reform, which the King seems intent to implement.
According to a recent Bahraini government press release:
Over recent months, the Government of Bahrain has already taken significant steps to address many of the issues covered in the independent commission’s report by instituting several important reforms. These have included approving legislation to establish a new National Human Rights Institution, which will be truly independent from the Government in accordance with best international practices. It will provide a solid foundation for an effective and internationally recognized way to monitor and strengthen human rights compliance in Bahrain. Amendments made recently to Bahrain’s laws include changes to the country’s penal code, so that all forms of torture will be criminalized. These amendments will be accompanied by stricter sentencing for those who commit torture, together with the lifting of the limitation period for claims of torture. The maximum sentence for torture will be set at life imprisonment. There are also before Parliament amendments to the law that would greatly enhance freedom of expression in accordance with international human rights laws. The Government has meanwhile established a Special fund for Victims to ensure that those who suffered in any way from the violent events of February and March are rightly compensated.
While it is wrong to say the Iranians were responsible for the initial uprising, they did seek to co-opt it, even if they were not fully successful in doing so. That is not to say that Bahrain does not face real security threats, or that elements among the protesters seek to provoke violence or hold allegiance elsewhere. There is a cache of old Bahraini opposition magazines at the Library of Congress which openly discuss training with the Revolutionary Guards and fealty to Ayatollah Khomeini.
While that was then, this is now: On Sunday, there was an explosion near the British embassy in Manama, and Iranian officials still talk about Bahrain as a renegade province in the same manner in which Saddam Hussein once described Kuwait.
Against this backdrop, it would behoove the U.S. administration to demonstrate continued support for Bahrain, and the reforms which the Bahraini government is already implementing. Bahrain faces real threats, and the United States should not hamper its efforts to defend itself against external enemies, even as it accepts no excuse for the use of such weaponry against Bahraini citizens peacefully protesting. Nor should the United States make any move to move the Fifth Fleet headquarters from Bahrain. If anything, the Fleet’s presence in Bahrain represents an important trip wire which will discourage Iran or other external actors from overplaying their hands. Ultimately, reform will strengthen Bahrain, but any country undergoing rapid change and reform temporarily becomes more vulnerable to agitators until the system settles.