Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bahrain

What Does the Bahrain Weapons Seizure Mean?

On December 30, Bahraini authorities announced that they had intercepted a ship carrying Iranian explosives and weaponry apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition. According to Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News:

Bahrain has scored a major victory in the fight against terror with the seizure of a huge weapons stash and the arrests of wanted fugitives attempting to flee the country. Seventeen people have been detained in a massive anti-terrorism operation on Saturday and Sunday, in which police confiscated large amounts of weapons and bomb-making material. Iranian-made explosives, Syrian bomb detonators, Kalashnikovs, C-4 explosives, Claymores, hand grenades, a PK machine gun, circuit boards for use in bomb making, armor-piercing explosives, TNT and a raft of other materials used to manufacture bombs were discovered. Some of the arms were seized in one of Bahrain’s biggest weapons hauls at sea as they were being smuggled here, apparently from Iraq. Others were found during a raid on an illegal weapons depot near the Budaiya Highway, while 13 of those arrested were wanted fugitives attempting to flee Bahrain on a high-speed boat heading north.

The Iranian government, for its part, fiercely rejected the Bahraini accusations. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for African and Arab affairs, dismissed the Bahraini charges, and said that Bahrain had no one to blame but itself for its own domestic woes.

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On December 30, Bahraini authorities announced that they had intercepted a ship carrying Iranian explosives and weaponry apparently destined for the Bahraini opposition. According to Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News:

Bahrain has scored a major victory in the fight against terror with the seizure of a huge weapons stash and the arrests of wanted fugitives attempting to flee the country. Seventeen people have been detained in a massive anti-terrorism operation on Saturday and Sunday, in which police confiscated large amounts of weapons and bomb-making material. Iranian-made explosives, Syrian bomb detonators, Kalashnikovs, C-4 explosives, Claymores, hand grenades, a PK machine gun, circuit boards for use in bomb making, armor-piercing explosives, TNT and a raft of other materials used to manufacture bombs were discovered. Some of the arms were seized in one of Bahrain’s biggest weapons hauls at sea as they were being smuggled here, apparently from Iraq. Others were found during a raid on an illegal weapons depot near the Budaiya Highway, while 13 of those arrested were wanted fugitives attempting to flee Bahrain on a high-speed boat heading north.

The Iranian government, for its part, fiercely rejected the Bahraini accusations. Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for African and Arab affairs, dismissed the Bahraini charges, and said that Bahrain had no one to blame but itself for its own domestic woes.

Make no mistake: Bahraini Shi’ites have real grievances which have nothing to do with Iran. Ninety-five percent of unemployed Bahrainis are Shi’ites, and they face discrimination in almost every sector. And while Iran was neck-deep in the 1981 coup plot against the Bahraini royal family (as per the materials and publications of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which are housed at the Library of Congress), few Bahraini Shi’ites knowingly carry water for Iran. As many Bahraini Shi’ites point out, they had every opportunity to vote for unity with Iran during the UN-sponsored referendum in 1970, but chose independence. Many Bahrainis want only reform, but have grown frustrated by a Bahraini king who prefers recreation over government, and a prime minister who believes wielding an iron fist and Saudi backing trumps reform.

As the smallest Arab state and the Arab world’s only island nation, Bahrain’s borders have also traditionally been easiest to control. Smuggling weaponry into Bahrain is no easy feat. While the Bahraini opposition are not as non-violent as they profess (Molotov cocktails are hardly tools of the non-violent), they have apparently maintained their distance from all but Iranian media and, if the Bahraini government is to be believed, from financial assistance siphoned from the interest upon Iranian accounts in Bahraini banks and charitable donations provided by the offices of Iran- and Iraq-based ayatollahs.

If this weapons seizure is true—and, despite Iranian denials, it seems far-fetched that it is fake—then it suggests a number of worrisome things for 2014.

First, despite hope in Western capitals that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election matters, it seems the Islamic Republic—or at least its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)—are resurgent and bent on taking the constitutionally-mandated “export of revolution” to a new level. With Iran resurgent in Syria and still overwhelmingly influential in Iraq (and Iraqi Kurdistan), it seems that Tehran seeks to be turning its attention to its proxy war against Saudi Arabia on other fronts.

The United States should also be concerned, given the decades-long partnership between the Bahraini government and the United States. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and American servicemen genuinely like the kingdom and its people, who are known throughout the Persian Gulf for their friendliness. The Bahraini opposition, for its part, determinedly has not targeted Americans or engaged in gratuitous anti-Americanism, although some opposition figures who say nice thing about the United States in English have told the Iranian press in Persian that expulsion of the Americans will be the first order of business should the opposition be victorious.

It behooves the Bahraini opposition to be especially careful if Qods Force commander Qasim Suleimani and the IRGC seek to open a new chapter in the Bahraini unrest, for any attempt by Iran to co-opt the movement will delegitimize the Bahraini opposition and their struggle for reform for decades to come. At the same time, let us hope that President Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry understand just how much remains at stake in the Middle East, and the damage that will occur to U.S. interests should they continue to allow American influence to hemorrhage. 

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For Our Arab Allies, It’s “East of Suez” All Over Again

Evelyn Gordon is absolutely correct when she writes that the U.S. romance with Iran “terrifies” our Arab allies, but she hits only the tip of the iceberg. Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is only the latest in a long line of presidential statements, decisions, and actions which have antagonized America’s Arab allies.

Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman have quietly but steadily supported the United States for years. Bahrain and Kuwait host important U.S. military contingents (I write this from the Louisville, Kentucky airport where I am returning from a brief with a Fort Knox-based U.S. Army unit heading to Kuwait in a few months). The Sultanate of Oman has been a force for moderation and quiet backchannel diplomacy for years, and played a crucial role in the months after 9/11 as action neared in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, the most dangerous group to both democracy and stability in the Arab Middle East.

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Evelyn Gordon is absolutely correct when she writes that the U.S. romance with Iran “terrifies” our Arab allies, but she hits only the tip of the iceberg. Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is only the latest in a long line of presidential statements, decisions, and actions which have antagonized America’s Arab allies.

Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Sultanate of Oman have quietly but steadily supported the United States for years. Bahrain and Kuwait host important U.S. military contingents (I write this from the Louisville, Kentucky airport where I am returning from a brief with a Fort Knox-based U.S. Army unit heading to Kuwait in a few months). The Sultanate of Oman has been a force for moderation and quiet backchannel diplomacy for years, and played a crucial role in the months after 9/11 as action neared in Afghanistan. The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of the fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, the most dangerous group to both democracy and stability in the Arab Middle East.

Imagine how the “Pivot to Asia” sounded to Gulf Arab leaders who, in their childhoods, heard British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s “East of Suez” speech and then saw the British military promptly abandon their Arab allies. It was against the backdrop of the British withdrawal that the United Arab Emirates, for example, experienced Iranian aggression firsthand when the Iranian military (with President Richard Nixon’s tacit approval) seized the disputed Tonb islands and Abu Musa.

Then, early in Obama’s first term, Hillary Clinton floated a trial balloon to extend a nuclear umbrella over the Gulf states should Iran ever go nuclear. Privately, our Gulf partners asked how they could ever trust such a guarantee since Obama and Clinton had been so willing to abandon the previous rock-solid guarantee that Iran would never go nuclear.

The Obama doctrine is a doctrine of betrayal. Just ask Georgia, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Honduras, Poland, and every Gulf Arab ally. Maybe pundits can spin, but there is no denying it in the perception of our Gulf allies. Alas, the reverberations of so quickly dispensing with commitments to allies will last long after Obama retires, and will be an insurmountable burden for U.S. diplomacy for decades to come.

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Bahrain in Perspective

Bahrain is a country that has a special place in my heart. The Bahrainis are—hands down—the warmest people in the Persian Gulf. The country is tolerant, multi-ethnic, and hosts Jewish and Christian communities alongside Muslim ones. Whereas the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait have erased much of their past, Bahraini culture through the decades and, indeed, centuries is still evident.

That said, Bahrain is still a very conflicted society. Much of the recent social tension in Bahrain is rooted in very deep, real, and inexcusable discrimination against that country’s Shi’ite majority. After visiting Bahrain last year, I reported here, here, here, and here about some of the issues. At one point, I had speculated that Bahrain might be heading for a “bloodbath,” and on that score I was wrong.

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Bahrain is a country that has a special place in my heart. The Bahrainis are—hands down—the warmest people in the Persian Gulf. The country is tolerant, multi-ethnic, and hosts Jewish and Christian communities alongside Muslim ones. Whereas the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait have erased much of their past, Bahraini culture through the decades and, indeed, centuries is still evident.

That said, Bahrain is still a very conflicted society. Much of the recent social tension in Bahrain is rooted in very deep, real, and inexcusable discrimination against that country’s Shi’ite majority. After visiting Bahrain last year, I reported here, here, here, and here about some of the issues. At one point, I had speculated that Bahrain might be heading for a “bloodbath,” and on that score I was wrong.

While I still believe that Bahrain must reform—the Shi’ites in Bahrain must have real opportunity and say in governance; the king must do more to implement his promises; and the prime minister should retire before his intolerant policies exacerbate the conflict more. True, too many casualties could have been avoided had Bahraini security forces not fired tear gas into a confined area or if they did not hamper medical treatment for injured protestors. On the other hand, much of the Bahraini opposition is sincere, but there are some elements which seek a very different future for Bahrain. Too often, leading figures’ quotes in English and Persian are radically different, and this breeds suspicion. Any trip to a Bahraini religious bookstore can be a scary visit given all the pro-Hassan Nasrallah, Imad Mughniyeh, or Ali Khamenei propaganda, as well as the CDs with the speeches of legal opposition leader Ali Salman set to religious music and distributed by al-Manar, the television station of Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, the Bahraini government also deserves credit for its relative restraint, especially in juxtaposition to the situation in Egypt. Alas, the United States for too long has bashed Bahrain despite the Bahraini government’s invaluable assistance to the United States in general and the United States Navy in particular. While we need to encourage real reform in Bahrain, when we compare the monarchy to other governments in the region, we see just how level-headed it is. That should be appreciated, instead of condemned. With such chaos in the Middle East, it is long past time that the United States value and reward friendship, even as it pressures for needed reforms.

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Twitter Crackdown Exposes Saudi Fear

Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

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Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

The Saudi move comes against the backdrop of debates about political reform and popular Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah—who has more than 2.5 million followers on Twitter—mocking government attempts to crackdown on Twitter. Al-Awdah may have broken with Usama Bin Laden, but no longer being an al-Qaeda sympathizer is a pretty low bar by which to describe reformism. Al-Awdah may be a reformer in the Saudi context, but no one should conflate reform with liberalism.

Nevertheless, Al-Awdah has become increasingly strident in his calls for political change in Saudi Arabia. According to the Open Source Center, he warned on March 16 that the Saudi people “will not remain silent.” Ten days later, he followed up by suggesting that should the Saudi government ignore calls for reform, “the only solution would be to go out into the square and counter argument with argument.”

I speculated six months ago that Saudi Arabia could be next. The autocratic kingdom is strictly off-limits to most Western journalists. Those who get in seldom move outside Riyadh or Jeddah. But if a riot breaks out in the Saudi hinterland and no one is around to cover it, that does not mean that all is well. It will be interesting to see if Saudi Arabia manages to constrain Twitter. Cutting communications, however, is a poor substitute for true reform. And the royal family is kidding itself if it believes it can remain aloof from political modernity forever.

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How to Rein in Bahrain?

In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

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In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

Yet, as she notes, U.S. protests over such clear violations of human rights have been negligible. This is understandable, because Bahrain is the home of the Fifth Fleet and a close military ally. There are also fears that the Bahraini opposition, mainly Shiite in a country ruled by a Sunni royal family, is a stalking horse for Iranian influence. That, at any rate, is what the Bahrain government would like us to believe; but from everything I saw during a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this year, most of the opposition, while undeniably Shiite, is fairly moderate and not interested in creating an Iranian-style theocracy. Ironically what is most likely to drive them into Iran’s arms is if the Bahrain government continues its policy of repression in cooperation with the Saudis.

It is hard for the U.S. to apply pressure to Bahrain by cutting off arms sales (as Zainab Al-Khawaja suggests) or at least making them conditional on human-rights improvements. But it is also a step we need to seriously consider, lest we repeat the mistake we made with Egypt where we gave unconditional backing to another pro-American dictator, acting under the illusion that he could stave off the people’s demands indefinitely. He couldn’t, and, because we didn’t press Mubarak for reform, instead we got a revolution.

That would be the worst possible outcome in Bahrain. Instead, we need to push for the royal family to turn their country into a constitutional monarchy, reserving some power over the armed forces while ceding most authority to the people’s elected representatives. That is the only long-term formula for stability in Bahrain and indeed throughout the Gulf.

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NY Times Paints Unflattering Picture of Obama’s Mideast Diplomacy

Considering that President Obama is running for reelection in no small part based on his foreign policy accomplishments, supposed or real, this long frontpage story by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the New York Times–hardly a hostile organ–paints a surprisingly mixed picture of his handling of the Arab Spring. On the one hand, it gives him credit for being ahead of some of his advisers in recognizing that Hosni Mubarak was finished by February 1, 2011, seven days after the start of demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

On the other hand, it argues that he was not especially skillful in managing the Arab Spring, especially in Bahrain, which led to tensions between the calls of human-rights advocates to back peaceful demonstrators and the demands of Gulf states to support the Bahraini monarchy, because he had not cultivated close relations with leaders in the region–or anywhere else. The article notes:

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Considering that President Obama is running for reelection in no small part based on his foreign policy accomplishments, supposed or real, this long frontpage story by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the New York Times–hardly a hostile organ–paints a surprisingly mixed picture of his handling of the Arab Spring. On the one hand, it gives him credit for being ahead of some of his advisers in recognizing that Hosni Mubarak was finished by February 1, 2011, seven days after the start of demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

On the other hand, it argues that he was not especially skillful in managing the Arab Spring, especially in Bahrain, which led to tensions between the calls of human-rights advocates to back peaceful demonstrators and the demands of Gulf states to support the Bahraini monarchy, because he had not cultivated close relations with leaders in the region–or anywhere else. The article notes:

The tensions between Mr. Obama and the Gulf states, both American and Arab diplomats say, derive from an Obama character trait: he has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders. “He’s not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him,” said one United States diplomat. “But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions.”

Arab officials echo that sentiment, describing Mr. Obama as a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics. “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.

“You can’t accomplish what you want to accomplish” with such an impersonal style, the diplomat said.

There are, to be sure, dangers of overly personalizing foreign policy. Even George W. Bush must cringe as he recalls the moment when he claimed to have looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and get “a sense of his soul.” But there is no doubt that the kind of relationship-building that Bush undertook–as did his predecessors–can pay off in a crisis. That’s something that Obama is still learning, just as he is learning how to respond to the desire for democracy in the Middle East. The Times article also relates that Obama has privately admitted the truth of Mitt Romney’s critique of his mishandling of the Green Revolution in Iran:

Mr. Obama followed a low-key script, criticizing violence but saying he did not want to be seen as meddling in Iranian domestic politics.

Months later, administration officials said, Mr. Obama expressed regret about his muted stance on Iran. “There was a feeling of ‘we ain’t gonna be behind the curve on this again,’ ” one senior administration official said. He, like almost two dozen administration officials and Arab and American diplomats interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One can only speculate about what other lessons Obama has learned from his first term. He’s certainly had enough setbacks and miscalculations to learn from.

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When Israel and the Arab States Agree

The New York Times’s regular feature “Room for Debate” often brings together a fairly diverse and interesting group of commenters on the chosen topic, and today’s is no different. The topic this time is about American support for Israel, and whether that hampers American influence in the Middle East. The debate group features Aaron David Miller, Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Gordis, Daoud Kuttab, and others.

But the strangest part of the debate is not what any of the contributors said, but how the topic is introduced. Here’s the Times’s opening explanation for the debate:

The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it’s just the “unilateral” part that he finds troubling: “It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.” Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?

In light of the long history of lobbying (and junkets for members of Congress), is support for Israel so entrenched in American politics that the U.S. can no longer exert influence and broker peace?

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The New York Times’s regular feature “Room for Debate” often brings together a fairly diverse and interesting group of commenters on the chosen topic, and today’s is no different. The topic this time is about American support for Israel, and whether that hampers American influence in the Middle East. The debate group features Aaron David Miller, Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Gordis, Daoud Kuttab, and others.

But the strangest part of the debate is not what any of the contributors said, but how the topic is introduced. Here’s the Times’s opening explanation for the debate:

The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it’s just the “unilateral” part that he finds troubling: “It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.” Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?

In light of the long history of lobbying (and junkets for members of Congress), is support for Israel so entrenched in American politics that the U.S. can no longer exert influence and broker peace?

Using the Iran example to touch off this debate is nonsensical. First of all, including Iran in the “Arab world” usually leads to a misunderstanding of the Islamic Republic, since it is not an Arab state (though that doesn’t mean it has nothing in common with its Arab neighbors). But even more bizarre is the fact that the Times thinks Israel and the Arab states are on opposing sides on the issue. They are not. Last year, as Oren Kessler reported, the WikiLeaks cables proved what anyone with any experience with the region’s politics and history already expected: there was “unanimous” support for taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities. Kessler wrote:

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah urged Washington to “cut off the head of the snake,” and both he and then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak described the Islamic Republic as “evil” and untrustworthy.

An Iranian nuclear weapon, Mubarak warned, was liable to set off a region-wide arms race.

“Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb,” added Zeid Rifai, then president of the Jordanian senate. “Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.”

In the Persian Gulf, the rulers of Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were all reportedly in favor of a strike.

So too was the king of Bahrain, where a Sunni elite rules over a large Shi’ite majority and which officials in Iran have described as the country’s “fifteenth province.”

Mubarak may be gone, but there seems to be no other outdated exception to the story. This wasn’t the only such report, however. Saudi Arabia appears to be making preparations for any oil disruption caused by an attack on Iran. That is in their interest whether they support an attack or not, since they would still need to get their product to market safely, but it would also keep the price of their oil from skyrocketing, which dramatically reduces the harm to the West in the event of an attack or disruption.

And as Shai Feldman wrote with regard to the region’s Sunni Arab states, “None of these countries uttered a word when in 2007 Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Sunni-Arab Syria.”

So contra the New York Times, the Arab states are not only assuming the U.S. would support Israel on the Iran issue, but hoping and lobbying for such support.

As for the Times’s discredited and debunked suggestion that strong support for Israel works against American diplomacy, I suppose it’s worth repeating that Israel has proven time and again to be far more willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the peace process when U.S. support is strong and “daylight” between the two is minimized. But that’s the obvious part of this that everyone knows. The Iran aspect of the debate introduction, however, shows the Times to be strikingly unaware of what the Arab states actually want from the United States.

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Will Saudi Arabia be Next to Fall?

After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

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After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

Human rights groups and journalists tend to focus on Bahrain. There certainly are myriad problems in that Arab island nation, but the focus is disproportionate, determined more by access than by degree of repression. While the Bahraini government uses rubber bullets, the Saudis prefer live ammunition, especially when the protesters are Shi’ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

If unrest strikes Saudi Arabia and if the monarchy falls, the results could reverberate further than former Egyptian President Mubarak’s fall:

  • It’s one thing for Libyan oil to temporarily go offline, and quite another for Saudi oil to do so. Then again, if the White House encouraged greater shale exploitation, new pipelines, and new drilling offshore, then it could blunt any future Saudi oil shock. Even at the best of times, that’s a good idea.
  • Saudi Arabia, like it or not, has been a key U.S. ally. Despite the conspiracy-ridden and often anti-Semitic blogosphere, America has never gone to war for Israel. It has, however, gone to war for Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s 1991 liberation was as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression as it was about freeing the tiny emirate. If the Kingdom fell, upon whom in the Arab Middle East could the United States really count?
  • On the other hand, when President Obama leads from behind, the country from behind which he leads is, more often than not, Saudi Arabia. Republicans are in no position to castigate the president for deference to Riyadh, however, because so many Republican presidents and secretaries have also sucked at the Saudi teat. Freed from the Saudi constraint, how might U.S. policy be different?
  • There is a reason why Saudi Arabia has been an ally. Saudi Arabia may have incubated al-Qaeda and extremism, but they have also cooperated greatly on counter-terrorism. If the Saudi regime falls, would a new government be so forthcoming with counter terror aid and assistance?
  • Next to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is most likely to fracture into its constituent parts if it ever faces state failure. The Hejaz might be more cosmopolitan and moderate, but Iran would make a full-court press to become the predominant influence in the Eastern Province. That could be the death knell for a more moderate regime in Bahrain. The question is what extremists in the Nejd would do, and whether they could be contained. What might happen if more extreme elements consolidate control across the country?
  • Whether or not Saudi Arabia has been an American ally, its influence across the Islamic world has certainly been as malignant as Iran’s. If the Kingdom collapsed, would such subsidies continue? As some of my AEI colleagues have pointed out, for all the billions of dollars they have expended, the Saudis have failed to win hearts and minds across the broader region. Simply put, no one likes the Saudis. If the Western economy was shielded from a Saudi descent into chaos, would anyone really care?
  • The end of the Saudi gravy train would reverberate not only across countries, but also among institutions in the United States. The Saudis have generously funded universities, think tanks, public relations firms, lobbyists, advocacy groups like CAIR, and writers. The Mujahedin al-Khalq in recent years may have exposed how so many American figures follow the dollar sign rather than principle, but that’s nothing compared to what the Saudis have managed. Who would fill that void, if anyone?  Perhaps the world would be a better place if the advice put forward on the back of Saudi petrodollars no longer received such a favorable hearing in Washington, and if students were no longer indoctrinated by the curriculum Saudi oil money bought.

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Saudi Confederation Plans a Bad Idea

Every few years, the Saudi government proposes to remake the Gulf Cooperation Council by replacing it with a federation; in a way, a United States of Arabia. The proposals have never gone anywhere. Saudi Arabia is the big kid on the block and the neighborhood bully: No one wants to be second fiddle to the Saudis, nor do citizens of the Persian Gulf emirates want to sacrifice their freedoms to conform to the Saudi way of life.

That’s all changing now, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia move forward with economic and social union. The reason is largely sectarian: The Shi’ites are the majority in Bahrain, and protests have evolved to the point where the Sunni-led royal family is no longer able to make the reforms Shi’ite political leaders demand. By joining a confederation, the Bahraini royal family can purchase further Saudi largesse and involve Saudi forces even more directly in quashing unrest.

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Every few years, the Saudi government proposes to remake the Gulf Cooperation Council by replacing it with a federation; in a way, a United States of Arabia. The proposals have never gone anywhere. Saudi Arabia is the big kid on the block and the neighborhood bully: No one wants to be second fiddle to the Saudis, nor do citizens of the Persian Gulf emirates want to sacrifice their freedoms to conform to the Saudi way of life.

That’s all changing now, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia move forward with economic and social union. The reason is largely sectarian: The Shi’ites are the majority in Bahrain, and protests have evolved to the point where the Sunni-led royal family is no longer able to make the reforms Shi’ite political leaders demand. By joining a confederation, the Bahraini royal family can purchase further Saudi largesse and involve Saudi forces even more directly in quashing unrest.

The move is short-sighted, however. Not only may it change the comparatively liberal character for which Bahrain is known, at least relative to the other Persian Gulf states, but it will also hasten the spread of sectarian unrest into Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is, after all, an artificial country. (Like “Petoria” in the television show “Family Guy,” any country is artificial when it’s named after a person). The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Shi’ite, and quite resentful of Wahhabi rule.

Western journalists and human rights activists condemn the Bahraini government repeatedly for its crackdown because, despite Bahraini efforts to restrict access, Bahrain is a far freer society than Saudi Arabia, and so observers can witness the clashes between the government and opposition (as I did in February). Also, major organizations like Human Rights Watch may be loathe to condemn Saudi authorities, because they solicit money from the Saudis and so may compromise their integrity to pay their bills. While Bahraini security forces are relatively restrained – using mostly rubber bullets and tear gas – in the absence of international presence and attention Saudi forces have no such self-restraint, and favor live ammunition. After confederation, however, Bahraini Shi’ites will not waste a day before beginning to export their “best practices” to their Saudi Shi’ite brethren.

Other American allies in the region will also begin to feel pressure to choose sides. During a  recent trip to Kuwait, Kuwaitis explained it to me like this: Traditionally, countries like Kuwait and Qatar have survived by playing the two regional giants—Saudi Arabia and Iran—off each other. By forming a federation with Saudi Arabia, the emirates and kingdoms transform themselves into the designated space for proxy war. After all, if Bahrain becomes in effect Saudi, then the easiest place to target the Saudis is in Bahrain.

And while many elite foreign policy and military officials cultivate close relations with the Saudis, the Kingdom is far from a good ally. That Saudis formed the bulk of the 9/11 plot was not an accident; it was a direct result of the Saudi education system. And, when the going got tough, the Saudis kicked most American forces out of the country—something they might get tempted to do if they were to absorb Bahrain or Kuwait.

The best way forward for Bahrain is not confederation with Saudi Arabia, nor is it arms packages for anything else than defending the tiny island Kingdom from the Iranian threat. Rather, the course for U.S. policy would be to encourage quick and meaningful reform, and uncompromised Bahraini independence.

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U.S. Must Push for Reforms in Bahrain

So Bahrain managed to hold its much-heralded Grand Prix auto race last weekend without significant disruption–but only because of a massive security presence on the roads. The weekend was a turbulent one, with a protester getting shot and killed and opposition groups alleging that the government was responsible. His funeral drew 15,000 people and was punctuated by attacks on police stations.

Having recently returned from a few days in this tiny Persian Gulf kingdom, I can’t say I’m surprised. While I was there, the news was full of reports of Molotov cocktails being tossed at police cars and various other clashes–all of this happening, mind you, more than a year after the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in February 2011. Those protests were crushed in March with the help of Saudi security forces whose armored vehicles rumbled across the causeway into neighboring Bahrain. But the discontent that led to the outbreak has not gone away. It continues to be expressed in both peaceful protests and violent attacks.

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So Bahrain managed to hold its much-heralded Grand Prix auto race last weekend without significant disruption–but only because of a massive security presence on the roads. The weekend was a turbulent one, with a protester getting shot and killed and opposition groups alleging that the government was responsible. His funeral drew 15,000 people and was punctuated by attacks on police stations.

Having recently returned from a few days in this tiny Persian Gulf kingdom, I can’t say I’m surprised. While I was there, the news was full of reports of Molotov cocktails being tossed at police cars and various other clashes–all of this happening, mind you, more than a year after the outbreak of pro-democracy protests in February 2011. Those protests were crushed in March with the help of Saudi security forces whose armored vehicles rumbled across the causeway into neighboring Bahrain. But the discontent that led to the outbreak has not gone away. It continues to be expressed in both peaceful protests and violent attacks.

In Bahrain, as in many other places around the Middle East, the dispute over political reform cannot be separated from sectarian disputes, as the ruling al Khalifa royal family is Sunni and the majority of their subjects are Shi’ites who feel impoverished and disenfranchised. Law and order is maintained by overwhelmingly Sunni security forces, many of them of immigrants from other Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, further fueling discontent among impoverished native Shi’ites.

Always present is the specter of Iran, the giant Shi’ite state which lies only a few miles away from Bahrain across the Persian (of if you prefer Arabian) Gulf. The Bahraini and Saudi royals insist on seeing all demonstrations as an Iranian plot, even though no evidence of Iran’s hand at work has been uncovered. Nevertheless, there is cause to fear that complete chaos in Bahrain could play into Iran’s hands.

Moreover, from the U.S. perspective, there is even more direct cause to favor the status quo: Bahrain is home to the Fifth Fleet and the naval headquarters for Central Command. The Bahrainis are very cooperative and hospitable hosts, allowing the U.S. nearly complete freedom of movement. That would not be easy to achieve elsewhere in the region if the Fifth Fleet headquarters had to move–and that would be a costly undertaking in any case given the fact that the U.S. has built so much infrastructure in Bahrain already.

Yet the U.S. cannot simply turn a blind eye to the repressive practices of an ally, which would discredit our promotion of democracy elsewhere in the region. To its credit, the Bahraini government commissioned a credible independent review of its human rights abuses, led by a widely respected Egyptian-American law professor. However, the government has not fully implemented the commission’s reports, and there are still many troubling reports of the security forces continuing to torture perceived troublemakers.

While Riyadh will use its influence to block any liberal reforms, the U.S. must use our considerable sway–including the provisions of weapons to the Bahraini armed forces–to push the Bahrainis toward curbing their security forces and initiating dialogue with the main opposition group, al Wefaq. Its demands for greater democracy are reasonable, and it is not even calling for the ouster of the royal family. Rather, it seeks a constitutional monarchy which would be a first in the Gulf region. The model could be Morocco where the king is introducing democracy while for the time being keeping control of the military and foreign policy.

Accomplishing this would probably require the ouster of Bahrain’s hard-line prime minister who is widely seen as an obstacle to reform, which has been championed by the American-educated crown prince. It would be premature and counterproductive, as some suggest, to remove the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, but we must do more to push for the type of reforms that can head off a future explosion. The examples to avoid are Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011: in both cases the U.S. gave carte blanche to dictators for years, making inevitable a revolution harmful to American strategic interests. Difficult actions are needed now in Bahrain to avoid a potential catastrophe down the road.

 

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Showdown in Bahrain

Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

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Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

So what next in Bahrain? The level of trust between opposition and government is zero. There is a stereotype in the West that the Persian Gulf is awash in oil, but it is not evenly distributed. The simple fact is that Bahrain has next to nothing—and would have even less if Saudi Arabia did not provide a great deal. Given their constraints and financial limitations, the Khalifa family has transformed Bahrain from a dusty backwater into a major financial hub. Shiny skyscrapers sit on reclaimed land. Infrastructure is superior even to many oil-rich Saudi cities (don’t even ask about the sewage system in Jeddah). Visitors recognize what the Bahrainis know: Bahraini culture is laid back and Bahrainis are far friendlier than many of their Gulf brethren.

Still, the grievances are real: A Bahraini born Shi’ite has little equality of opportunity. Sectarian restrictions are rife. And many of Crown Prince Hamad’s promises of reform evaporated when he took the throne in 1999. While many Bahraini officials recognize the need for reform, cynicism is rife and trust is non-existent. There is a consistent problem in which all sides recognize the need for reform after bouts of violence but do not want to concede under pressure. Once calm is restored, however, they fool themselves into thinking that reform is unnecessary, until the cycle begins anew.

So how to proceed? The Bahraini government claims the uprising is Iranian-sponsored. Certainly, the Iranians may co-opt it, but to show real Iranian interference beyond media incitement, the Bahraini government needs to expose the financial links between certain opposition figures and Iran. There have been quiet allegations of some businesses and bank accounts acting as fronts and financiers of opposition activity, but the unwillingness of the Bahraini officials to expose such intelligence has begun to erode their credibility.

The opposition, meanwhile, has made a case based on heart strings, but has yet to demonstrate how they would govern the day after any victory. Bahraini opposition politicians avoid too much talk about the role of Ayatollah Isa Qasim in political decision-making and when if ever they have taken action in contradiction to his pronouncements. While the opposition leaders are seasoned and mature, the anger of their followers will not be easily contained. If the opposition does succeed in overthrowing the monarchy—increasingly their goal—then how would the opposition constrain the impulse to exact revenge against the Sunni minority? If Bahraini Shi’ites have been largely excluded from the security forces, how would they be integrated over the following weeks and months? Ditto better integration of the financial sector. Seeking to destroy Bahrain’s economic infrastructure and reputation will, at best, provide a Pyrrhic victory.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, whose offer of federation with Bahrain may be enough to keep hardliners inside the Bahraini royal family from pushing forward with reform. Nothing should remind better that as bad as the Iranian regime might be, the Saudis are just as noxious an influence on Middle Eastern politics. If the Obama administration believes it can farm out the Bahrain problem to the Saudis, then the White House and State Department will soon demonstrate just how counterproductive a strategy of leading from behind can be.

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Paying the Price in Egypt and Iran

I have already compared the trial of 16 Americans, along with a number of Egyptians, in an Egyptian court on trumped-up charges of violating various laws to the Iranian hostage crisis in terms of the challenge it poses to American power. There is another similarity worth noting: In both cases we were in some sense reaping what we sowed.

Much of the reason Iranians were so anti-American in 1979, after all, was the unlimited backing we had given to an unpopular dictator, the Shah. Likewise, much of the reason Egyptians are anti-American is because of the unlimited backing we gave to another unpopular dictator, Hosni Mubarak. It did not matter in either case that at the last minute, when both men were in danger of toppling, the U.S. effectively withdrew its backing. All that the people of Egypt and Iran would remember was the decades of support for a dictator which preceded the regime’s demise.

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I have already compared the trial of 16 Americans, along with a number of Egyptians, in an Egyptian court on trumped-up charges of violating various laws to the Iranian hostage crisis in terms of the challenge it poses to American power. There is another similarity worth noting: In both cases we were in some sense reaping what we sowed.

Much of the reason Iranians were so anti-American in 1979, after all, was the unlimited backing we had given to an unpopular dictator, the Shah. Likewise, much of the reason Egyptians are anti-American is because of the unlimited backing we gave to another unpopular dictator, Hosni Mubarak. It did not matter in either case that at the last minute, when both men were in danger of toppling, the U.S. effectively withdrew its backing. All that the people of Egypt and Iran would remember was the decades of support for a dictator which preceded the regime’s demise.

Needless to say, I do not condone this anti-Americanism, but I can understand it–just as I can understand why so many American governments found it prudent to back the Shah and Mubarak. The regime which succeeded the Shah makes his rule seem paradisiacal by comparison; the same might yet be said of whatever regime emerges in Egypt, which will be dominated by Islamists. Perhaps there was no “third way” possible (to evoke that Cold War phrase), but we should have at least tried harder to find it by pushing our dictatorial allies to reform and providing support to moderate opposition elements.

We didn’t do that in the case of Egypt and Iran and are now paying the price. It is not too late in the case of other regional allies such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We need to push them to liberalize, or else we can expect more hostage crises and show trials in our future.

 

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Bahrain Opposition Can’t Have it Both Ways

After a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this month, it is clear the situation in Bahrain is reaching a head. February 14 marked the year anniversary of demonstrations at the Pearl Monument. Clashes and arrests continue. The Bahraini government has not been as proactive with reform as perhaps it might. Grievances in Bahrain—where the majority population is Shi’ite whereas the royal family and security forces are overwhelmingly Sunni—are real, and stability, security, and economic growth ultimately require they be addressed.

Bahrain might be the smallest Arab state, but it has disproportionate importance for American national security. It hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a vital tool in securing the Persian Gulf to international shipping and also, potentially, in containing Iran. While American officials generally recognize Bahraini grievances and pressure the king and prime minister to become more proactive with reform, the future of the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain will ultimately shape American decision-making.

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After a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this month, it is clear the situation in Bahrain is reaching a head. February 14 marked the year anniversary of demonstrations at the Pearl Monument. Clashes and arrests continue. The Bahraini government has not been as proactive with reform as perhaps it might. Grievances in Bahrain—where the majority population is Shi’ite whereas the royal family and security forces are overwhelmingly Sunni—are real, and stability, security, and economic growth ultimately require they be addressed.

Bahrain might be the smallest Arab state, but it has disproportionate importance for American national security. It hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, a vital tool in securing the Persian Gulf to international shipping and also, potentially, in containing Iran. While American officials generally recognize Bahraini grievances and pressure the king and prime minister to become more proactive with reform, the future of the Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain will ultimately shape American decision-making.

The Bahraini opposition has generally argued—in English and to Western journalists and officials—that they are far more likely to acquiesce to the Fifth Fleet’s continued presence if the Americans side more completely with their demands for reform.

The problem is that some Bahraini activists have fallen into a trap of saying one thing in English, and yet another in Persian. Here, for example, is a statement reported in the Persian press in early September from a Bahraini activist that speaks of compromise in English:

Bahrain is America’s front line… The Americans will not easily allow removal of their stooges in the region unless the conditions dictate otherwise. Where can they find a ruler who is ready to give his oil to them for free? Or allow them to establish military bases? Allow them to do what they please in his country? To defend the Zionists and give them the domestic market and its chambers of commerce? This is what the Khalifa Dynasty has done for the Americans and it is documented.

Now, it is quite possible the person in question was misquoted by the Iranian press. And it is also true that the Bahraini opposition does not speak with a single voice. The words of a single activist do not obviate the need for reform. Still, the discrepancy between the opposition remarks in Persian and in English is glaring. Until the opposition describes its positions consistently in Persian, Arabic and English, distrust is going to hamper reform. It comes down to a choice: Bahraini opposition figures either need to tell the Americans what they do not want to hear in the American press, or tell the Iranians what they do not want to hear in the Iranian press. But it will not be possible to have it both ways.

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Is the Bahrain Uprising Sponsored by Iran?

Bahrain is strategically important and an incredibly diverse country, not only ethnically (with Arabs and those of Persian origin, not to mention South Asians and Filipinos if one includes the expatriate workers), but also religiously: The majority are Shi’ite Muslims, the ruling and more elite class are Sunni Muslims, and there are also a number of Christians and Jewish families, the latter mostly of Iraqi origin centuries ago. The Bahraini ambassador to the United States is Jewish.

Because most of the opposition is Shi’ite, there is concern in American policy circles and among many journalists that a hidden Iranian hand controls the Bahraini opposition. This translates into concern that meaningful reform would usher in a period of Iranian domination.

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Bahrain is strategically important and an incredibly diverse country, not only ethnically (with Arabs and those of Persian origin, not to mention South Asians and Filipinos if one includes the expatriate workers), but also religiously: The majority are Shi’ite Muslims, the ruling and more elite class are Sunni Muslims, and there are also a number of Christians and Jewish families, the latter mostly of Iraqi origin centuries ago. The Bahraini ambassador to the United States is Jewish.

Because most of the opposition is Shi’ite, there is concern in American policy circles and among many journalists that a hidden Iranian hand controls the Bahraini opposition. This translates into concern that meaningful reform would usher in a period of Iranian domination.

The issue, however, is far more nuanced. When the British evacuated the region, the United Nations brokered a referendum on Bahrain’s future, and the vast majority—of both Sunni and Shi’ites—chose independence rather than incorporation into Iran. Certainly, the Iranians—who view most of the Persian Gulf, along with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Caucasus as their near-abroad—never truly abandoned their claim. In 2007, Hossein Shariatmadari, whom the Supreme Leader of Iran appointed to edit the Kayhan newspaper and so is read by many Iran analysts as the Supreme Leader’s proxy voice, penned an editorial reasserting Iran’s claim over Bahrain.

That said, most Bahraini Shi’ites are Arab and not Persian, and ethnic divisions matter. Few Arabs like to live under Persian domination regardless of sect. Hence the saying in southern Iraq: “Break the bones of a Persian and sh-t comes out.” Saddam Hussein, however, was in some ways a blessing for the Iranians. Because of Saddam’s oppression of the Iraqi Shi’ites and the tight control he kept over the holy city of Najaf, many Bahraini religious students shifted their study beginning in the 1970s and continuing arguably to the present day away from Najaf and toward Qom, where the Iranians could preach Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision of clerical rule. Just because something is taught, however, does not mean  it is believed. Many other Bahraini Shi’ites have been exposed to Iranian influence during pilgrimage, mostly to Mashhad but also to Qom.

Relations, however, are not enough to conclude political influence. The Shi’ite landscape in Bahrain is complex. If traditionally, many Bahraini Shi’ites looked toward Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani for their religious guidance, others increasingly look to Ayatollah Khamenei. Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, perhaps the closest thing to a spiritual leader which Lebanese Hezbollah had, also retains followers in Bahrain. While he died in 2010 and, theoretically, Shi’ites must follow a living source of emulation, Fadlallah’s office still retains a vakil who collects religious taxes. Other groups look more toward Ayatollahs Shirazi and Modaressi.

The Iranian government wins a great advantage through its media. Almost everyone I spoke to—taxi drivers, businessmen, and activists—say they listen to Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam service for their news or, when that is jammed, to Voice of Iran. Iran’s Press TV and Sahar are also popular. Government officials also acknowledge the popularity of these services. Here then is another example of the failure of Voice of America (and, for that matter, the BBC) which has not covered the events in Bahrain nearly as often or as completely. Bahrainis, though, are sophisticated, and while they may listen to Iranian channels for news, they are not brainwashed blindly. After all, they recognize that for news about Syria, the Iranian channels are woefully biased, “as biased as VOA is on Bahrain,” as one taxi driver told me. Still, woe be it for the United States to lose the battle of the airwaves.

During my time in Iraq, Iranian influence was clear even if many in the Coalition Provisional Authority, State Department and, indeed, the media did not want to initially believe it. Bahrain does not feel like the parallel. There are not Hezbollah flags, nor are Khamenei or Khomeini’s pictures ever present. That said, I did see worrying signs. Wandering into a religious book store near old Manama, I found posters for sale not only of Isa Qasim, the leading Bahraini cleric, but also of Khamenei, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, and, most worrisome, Imad Mughniyeh, the mastermind of the 2003 attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. My colleague found a CD with Wifaq leader Ali Samad’s speeches set to music and produced by Hezbollah’s al-Manar station. While many Bahrainis deny Isa Qasim follows Khamenei’s concept of clerical rule, Americans and Bahrainis cannot afford to forget that Khomeini swore up and down he had no interest in personal power prior to Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and too many useful idiots in both Iran and the United States accepted his statements at face value.

Shi’ite activists suggested that I had visited a store that was the exception rather than the rule but, not having surveyed other shops in villages, I have no way of knowing. Hopefully, the U.S. embassy has done such a survey but, again, having had no contact with American diplomats, I simply do not know.

Importantly, the Bahraini government’s investigation into last year’s uprising also shows the Iranians were not behind it unlike, for example, the 1981 uprising. Just because the Iranians did not spark the revolt, however, does not mean they will not try to hijack it. Khamenei will give the Friday Prayer sermon in Tehran himself tomorrow—a relative rarity—and he is expected to speak about Bahrain. Many Shi’ites also suggested that they perceive the Americans as supporting the government and some suggested they would accept help wherever they could get it. The perception that Saudi Arabia is playing hardball in Bahrain also makes local Shi’ites susceptible to Iranian influence.

The marches surrounding the anniversary of the Pearl Monument protests will be telling. Aside from Molotov cocktails—which are very much lethal—most of the Bahraini Shi’ites have been unarmed or, at least, have not had guns. Bahrain is an island, and so the government has been better able to stem the flow of illegal weaponry. Many Shi’ites have also sought to embrace non-violence, with varying degrees of success. However, if there is much violence on February 14, many Shi’ites may be more willing to arm themselves in a way that will be detrimental to everyone except, perhaps, Iran.

That said, money can also drive rebellions and fuel revolutions. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders made no secret, in 2008, that they see export of the revolution to be a military phenomenon and not a matter for soft power, as some of the Islamic Republic’s so-called reformists claim. It is not possible for an outside observer to know about the background financing, and that unknown is simply too great to draw firm conclusions without more information. Nevertheless, unrest of this magnitude could not exist without real grievances, and so the question for American policymakers is whether such grievances can be addressed before the Bahraini Shi’ite community is pushed into the Iranian camp, or before even greater Saudi intervention and/or federation–which will bring with it a whole host of other problems.

 

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Bahrain is Heading for a Bloodbath

I’ve spent the last several days in Bahrain, meeting with both government officials and members of the opposition. While I began my trip expecting protests on February 14, the anniversary of last year’s demonstrations and crackdowns on the Pearl Roundabout, I am leaving more pessimistic.

This was my first trip to Bahrain in 18 years, since I lived in the tiny Persian Gulf island nation for a summer. Since that time, the development in Bahrain has been astounding. What once was a dusty backwater with a very limited amount of oil has seen massive development. Alas, this has not trickled down to the population—with its sectarian divisions—evenly. I am not one who believes wealth must be distributed equally; what disturbs me more is the opportunity gap.

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I’ve spent the last several days in Bahrain, meeting with both government officials and members of the opposition. While I began my trip expecting protests on February 14, the anniversary of last year’s demonstrations and crackdowns on the Pearl Roundabout, I am leaving more pessimistic.

This was my first trip to Bahrain in 18 years, since I lived in the tiny Persian Gulf island nation for a summer. Since that time, the development in Bahrain has been astounding. What once was a dusty backwater with a very limited amount of oil has seen massive development. Alas, this has not trickled down to the population—with its sectarian divisions—evenly. I am not one who believes wealth must be distributed equally; what disturbs me more is the opportunity gap.

Even members of the royal family acknowledge that opposition grievances are real, and some are perhaps more sincere in their desire for reform than many oppositionists realize. Others are not, however, and while some opposition parties are more secular and liberal, and others are more religiously-oriented, there seems to be a consensus which has formed that compromise is impossible. The opposition accuses security forces—often manned by non-Bahraini Arabs and those with origins in South Asia—with using tactics which have worsened the situation. Bahraini authorities acknowledge there has been torture; the opposition distrusts the declaration of both the government and its appointed commission that they will address the problem seriously.

Within a five-minute walk from my hotel in central Manama is graffiti calling for the ouster of King Hamad, who has been a staunch ally of the United States. Within a shadow of the capital’s skyscrapers, the graffiti calling for the ruling family’s ouster, revolution, and even the king’s death is ever present (though the latter slogan is relatively rare). Cars honk their horns in a cadence with the four-syllable slogan calling for the king’s ouster. I attended a meeting with a more religiously-oriented group in which speakers called for the end of the Khalifa dynasty. To the credit of the Bahraini government, officials knew in advance I would be meeting with oppositionists, though they did not know with whom I would meet (nor, frankly did I), and the government did nothing to hamper me. To the credit of the American embassy, some of the opposition leaders spoke highly of their interaction with American diplomats. To the embassy’s discredit, others said they had never met a single American diplomat.

In Ma’amir, a village near the opposition stronghold of Sitra, I walked with protesters as they demonstrated  behind hastily erected barricades to prevent security force vehicles from running them down. I witnessed the ensuing clash—getting my fair share of tear gas (the most potent and strangest smelling tear gas I have ever encountered)—in the process. The protesters, as best I could see, were unarmed though at least one protester threw a Molotov cocktail.  Following the clash, I visited a hospital—well-guarded as the police reportedly try to stop the treatment of protesters—to confirm the death of a Bahraini oppositionist that day, who allegedly suffocated on tear gas. Perhaps the opposition wanted to create martyrs, perhaps they did not. But the fact of the matter is that going into the anniversary of last year’s shooting, there is no shortage of victims in whose memory the opposition will rally.

To the opposition’s credit, there have been no attacks, let alone threats, to my knowledge ,on Americans. It is in this context the U.S. embassy in Bahrain’s decision to withdraw Americans living in largely Shi’ite areas along the Budaiya road is a mistake. I wrote about that here, and received a thoughtful response from an anonymous blogger on Foreign Service affairs, here. While I am not sympathetic to the argument that the ability to go to Pizza Hut trumps a diplomat’s responsibility to report as broadly as possible, and I am not sympathetic to the argument that meetings with officials at sterile locations can ever substitute for observing on one’s own, a far greater concern is that with American diplomats evacuated from the area in which clashes are likely to occur, and with Western journalists unwelcome until after the anniversary passes, there is no incentive for either the government or the opposition to restrain themselves. As the opposition escalates their demands not simply to dismiss the government but also to rid Bahrain of monarchy, and the government hunkers down to restore order by whatever means necessary, the outlook for later this month is dire indeed.

There are other issues relating to American policymakers: Bahrain hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet and so is of incredible strategic importance. Allegations of Iranian influence are also of real concern to American policymakers. But, with a plane to catch, these thoughts will have to be explored over subsequent days.

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U.S. Embassy Relocating Diplomats in Bahrain

Against the backdrop of sectarian unrest in Bahrain, where I am visiting and writing this from, the U.S. embassy – who is not my sponsor and with whom I have had no contact – is evacuating diplomats from residences in compounds near largely Shi’ite villages. While the Shi’ite opposition has legitimate grievances, militant clerics appear to be seeking to provoke clashes to create martyrs ahead of expected February 14 protests. The Bahraini government made mistakes last year, but appears to be making a good faith effort to rectify and reform.

While the State Department is right to worry about the security of its employees, removing diplomats at the first sign of trouble undercuts diplomats’ ability to gather information. Thousands of American diplomats in Iraq, for example, achieved little to nothing because they allowed themselves to be shuttered behind the walls and checkpoints of the green zone. Likewise, many American diplomats in Egypt spent so much time catering to the Egyptian elite, they underestimated the discord brewing below. The last place anyone should go to understand what is going on in Lebanon is the American embassy, where diplomats remain shackled with security procedures that date back to the Lebanese civil war that ended well over two decades ago.

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Against the backdrop of sectarian unrest in Bahrain, where I am visiting and writing this from, the U.S. embassy – who is not my sponsor and with whom I have had no contact – is evacuating diplomats from residences in compounds near largely Shi’ite villages. While the Shi’ite opposition has legitimate grievances, militant clerics appear to be seeking to provoke clashes to create martyrs ahead of expected February 14 protests. The Bahraini government made mistakes last year, but appears to be making a good faith effort to rectify and reform.

While the State Department is right to worry about the security of its employees, removing diplomats at the first sign of trouble undercuts diplomats’ ability to gather information. Thousands of American diplomats in Iraq, for example, achieved little to nothing because they allowed themselves to be shuttered behind the walls and checkpoints of the green zone. Likewise, many American diplomats in Egypt spent so much time catering to the Egyptian elite, they underestimated the discord brewing below. The last place anyone should go to understand what is going on in Lebanon is the American embassy, where diplomats remain shackled with security procedures that date back to the Lebanese civil war that ended well over two decades ago.

Many American diplomats are bold, and chafe at the restrictions placed upon them by regional security officers. Being a diplomat, however, should not be a risk-free endeavor.  When the going gets tough, that is the time for American diplomats to be on the street, in local markets, and generally outside embassy walls or the confines of posh neighborhoods.

The State Department is seeking ever-greater funding. If there is some bang for the buck, that may be okay. But if the State Department restricts its diplomats’ ability to report, then there is really no justification for the budget it demands.

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Morning Commentary

The street riots in Tunisia could lead to a democratic revolution, but they could also lead to the rise of an extremist government, like the 1979 Islamic revolution did in Iran. In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum writes about the potential outcomes of Tunisia’s political transition: “A month ago, they turned to street protests. So far, this is not an Islamic revolution — but it isn’t a democratic revolution yet, either. Instead, we are witnessing a demographic revolution: the revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders. Anyone who looked at the population numbers and job data could have guessed it might happen, and, as I say, many did.”

Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, Alan Dershowitz, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and other Jewish leaders spoke out against the anti-Israel delegitimization movement at a south Florida summit on Sunday. While the boycott and divestment campaign hasn’t entered the mainstream in the U.S., it has been increasingly problematic in Europe: “‘When there is a boycott of Israeli products — buy them. When trade unions and universities want companies to divest of their holdings in Israeli companies — invest in them. When there is a speaker from Israel — attend the speech and make sure the speaker can be heard,’ Oren said. Most of all, ‘We must educate our community about BDS. We must unite actively to combat it,’ he said.”

Claudia Rosett wonders when Saudi Arabia is going to send Israel a thank-you note for Stuxnet. After all, if WikiLeaks has shown us anything, it’s that the Saudis fear a nuclear Iran almost as much as Israel and the U.S. do: “But if the broad picture painted by the Times is accurate (and there are gaps in the trail described), then surely there is another group of countries which for more wholesome reasons owe a profound thank you to Israel. Prominent among this crowd are the Middle East potentates, from the king of Saudi Arabia to the king of Bahrain to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, whose private pleadings — as made to U.S. officials and exposed by Wikileaks — were to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Stuxnet may be the first instance of cyberwarfare, writes Spencer Ackerman. But how far can these types of attacks go in helping us attain our national-security goals? “That also points to the downside. Just as strategic bombing doesn’t have a good track record of success, Stuxnet hasn’t taken down the Iranian nuclear program. Doctrine-writers may be tempted to view cyberwar as an alternative to a shooting war, but the evidence to date doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. Stuxnet just indicates that high-level cyberwarfare really is possible; it doesn’t indicate that it’s sufficient for achieving national objectives.”

Happy MLK Day. Foreign Policy’s Will Inboden asks President Obama to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for human rights and justice when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week: “As my Shadow Government colleague Mike Green pointed out in his excellent preview of the Hu visit, China’s imprisonment of democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo means that the White House meeting this week will be ‘our first summit (indeed, our first state visit) between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a world leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate.’ Martin Luther King Jr. also won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964.”

The street riots in Tunisia could lead to a democratic revolution, but they could also lead to the rise of an extremist government, like the 1979 Islamic revolution did in Iran. In the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum writes about the potential outcomes of Tunisia’s political transition: “A month ago, they turned to street protests. So far, this is not an Islamic revolution — but it isn’t a democratic revolution yet, either. Instead, we are witnessing a demographic revolution: the revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders. Anyone who looked at the population numbers and job data could have guessed it might happen, and, as I say, many did.”

Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, Natan Sharansky, Alan Dershowitz, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and other Jewish leaders spoke out against the anti-Israel delegitimization movement at a south Florida summit on Sunday. While the boycott and divestment campaign hasn’t entered the mainstream in the U.S., it has been increasingly problematic in Europe: “‘When there is a boycott of Israeli products — buy them. When trade unions and universities want companies to divest of their holdings in Israeli companies — invest in them. When there is a speaker from Israel — attend the speech and make sure the speaker can be heard,’ Oren said. Most of all, ‘We must educate our community about BDS. We must unite actively to combat it,’ he said.”

Claudia Rosett wonders when Saudi Arabia is going to send Israel a thank-you note for Stuxnet. After all, if WikiLeaks has shown us anything, it’s that the Saudis fear a nuclear Iran almost as much as Israel and the U.S. do: “But if the broad picture painted by the Times is accurate (and there are gaps in the trail described), then surely there is another group of countries which for more wholesome reasons owe a profound thank you to Israel. Prominent among this crowd are the Middle East potentates, from the king of Saudi Arabia to the king of Bahrain to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, whose private pleadings — as made to U.S. officials and exposed by Wikileaks — were to do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

Stuxnet may be the first instance of cyberwarfare, writes Spencer Ackerman. But how far can these types of attacks go in helping us attain our national-security goals? “That also points to the downside. Just as strategic bombing doesn’t have a good track record of success, Stuxnet hasn’t taken down the Iranian nuclear program. Doctrine-writers may be tempted to view cyberwar as an alternative to a shooting war, but the evidence to date doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. Stuxnet just indicates that high-level cyberwarfare really is possible; it doesn’t indicate that it’s sufficient for achieving national objectives.”

Happy MLK Day. Foreign Policy’s Will Inboden asks President Obama to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle for human rights and justice when he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao this week: “As my Shadow Government colleague Mike Green pointed out in his excellent preview of the Hu visit, China’s imprisonment of democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo means that the White House meeting this week will be ‘our first summit (indeed, our first state visit) between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a world leader who is imprisoning another Nobel Peace Prize laureate.’ Martin Luther King Jr. also won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1964.”

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Iran: Calculus Changing for the “Force Option”?

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.

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Morning Commentary

Chas Freeman’s New York Times column “Why Iran Loves WikiLeaks” is as scary as it sounds.

Obama finally speaks with China about North Korea, nearly two weeks after the North’s attack on South Korea. Some experts see this as a sign of strained relations between the U.S. and China.

New WikiLeaks dump reveals list of international facilities vital to U.S. security. There are concerns that these locations may become targets of terrorist attacks.

The New York Times’s public editor on why he’s glad the paper published WikiLeaks: “The Times, like other serious news organizations in democracies, exists to ferret out and publish information — most especially information that government, business and other power centers prefer to conceal. Arming readers with knowledge is what it’s about, and journalists are motivated to pursue that end.”

The Iranian foreign minister snubs Hilary Clinton in Bahrain as the heat turns up on Iran’s nuclear program. Talks between Tehran and P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear ambitions begin today.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about John Boehner can be found in an extensive New Yorker profile out today. The congressman takes over as speaker of the House on January 5.

Afghani confidence with the U.S. is faltering, according to a new poll: “[T]he results … lay bare the challenge that remains in encouraging more Afghans to repudiate the insurgency and cast their lot with the government.”

Chas Freeman’s New York Times column “Why Iran Loves WikiLeaks” is as scary as it sounds.

Obama finally speaks with China about North Korea, nearly two weeks after the North’s attack on South Korea. Some experts see this as a sign of strained relations between the U.S. and China.

New WikiLeaks dump reveals list of international facilities vital to U.S. security. There are concerns that these locations may become targets of terrorist attacks.

The New York Times’s public editor on why he’s glad the paper published WikiLeaks: “The Times, like other serious news organizations in democracies, exists to ferret out and publish information — most especially information that government, business and other power centers prefer to conceal. Arming readers with knowledge is what it’s about, and journalists are motivated to pursue that end.”

The Iranian foreign minister snubs Hilary Clinton in Bahrain as the heat turns up on Iran’s nuclear program. Talks between Tehran and P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear ambitions begin today.

Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about John Boehner can be found in an extensive New Yorker profile out today. The congressman takes over as speaker of the House on January 5.

Afghani confidence with the U.S. is faltering, according to a new poll: “[T]he results … lay bare the challenge that remains in encouraging more Afghans to repudiate the insurgency and cast their lot with the government.”

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To Get Arab Support on Iran, Take a Leaf from Bush Sr.

As Jennifer noted yesterday, the latest WikiLeaks revelations definitively refute Barack Obama’s “linkage” theory: that Israeli concessions to the Palestinians were necessary to persuade Arab states to oppose Iran’s nuclear program. But what the documents reveal about the profound strategic misconception behind this theory is frightening.

The list of Arab states urging America to bomb Iran, and the forcefulness with which they urged it, is astonishing. It includes Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates; virtually the only exception was Qatar. Clearly, no Israeli concessions were needed to persuade these countries that strong action against Iran was desirable.

But both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush insisted that this behind-the-scenes urging wasn’t enough; they needed Arab states to go public with it. As CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid told UAE officials in 2007, “we need our friends to say that they stand with the Americans.”

If Bush had any strategy for achieving this goal, it doesn’t emerge from the reports I’ve seen. But Obama did: linkage. If America showed that it’s on the Arabs’ side by extracting Israeli concessions, the theory went, then Arab states would no longer be reluctant to stand publicly beside the U.S.

But the idea that “soft power” could solve a quintessentially hard-power problem is a profound misconception, because the issue wasn’t the Arabs’ view of Washington as too pro-Israel; that never stopped them from supporting America if it served their interests before.

The real issue was their fear, given the visible reluctance to attack Iran displayed by both Bush and Obama, that if they publicly urged America to bomb Iran, and then America didn’t do it — they would be left alone to face the wrath of a nuclear-armed neighbor. And no amount of arm-twisting directed at Israel could possibly assuage that fear.

Indeed, only one thing could have done so: a clear American determination to attack Iran. You needn’t look far to find the model; it’s the one used by the first President George Bush in the Gulf War.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Arab states also initially refused to publicly back American action against Iraq. The day after the invasion, the Arab League even passed a resolution warning against outside intervention in the conflict.

But Bush, ignoring the verbiage, took swift action to assure Iraq’s neighbors that America wouldn’t leave them to face Iraq alone. Within a week, two naval battle groups had deployed to the area and more than 80 fighter jets had begun patrolling Saudi Arabia’s border. More forces arrived subsequently.

Only then did he start forming his coalition to invade Iraq. And with their protection assured, nine Arab states ultimately joined it.

Today, too, Arab states won’t publicly support attacking Iran without the surety that America will follow through. Nor can you blame them: they’re the ones who will have to live with a vengeful nuclear neighbor if America punts.

But you can certainly blame Washington for the delusion that gestures on an unrelated issue would suffice to allay a well-grounded existential fear — and be deeply worried that American leaders could misread the situation that profoundly.

As Jennifer noted yesterday, the latest WikiLeaks revelations definitively refute Barack Obama’s “linkage” theory: that Israeli concessions to the Palestinians were necessary to persuade Arab states to oppose Iran’s nuclear program. But what the documents reveal about the profound strategic misconception behind this theory is frightening.

The list of Arab states urging America to bomb Iran, and the forcefulness with which they urged it, is astonishing. It includes Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates; virtually the only exception was Qatar. Clearly, no Israeli concessions were needed to persuade these countries that strong action against Iran was desirable.

But both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush insisted that this behind-the-scenes urging wasn’t enough; they needed Arab states to go public with it. As CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid told UAE officials in 2007, “we need our friends to say that they stand with the Americans.”

If Bush had any strategy for achieving this goal, it doesn’t emerge from the reports I’ve seen. But Obama did: linkage. If America showed that it’s on the Arabs’ side by extracting Israeli concessions, the theory went, then Arab states would no longer be reluctant to stand publicly beside the U.S.

But the idea that “soft power” could solve a quintessentially hard-power problem is a profound misconception, because the issue wasn’t the Arabs’ view of Washington as too pro-Israel; that never stopped them from supporting America if it served their interests before.

The real issue was their fear, given the visible reluctance to attack Iran displayed by both Bush and Obama, that if they publicly urged America to bomb Iran, and then America didn’t do it — they would be left alone to face the wrath of a nuclear-armed neighbor. And no amount of arm-twisting directed at Israel could possibly assuage that fear.

Indeed, only one thing could have done so: a clear American determination to attack Iran. You needn’t look far to find the model; it’s the one used by the first President George Bush in the Gulf War.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Arab states also initially refused to publicly back American action against Iraq. The day after the invasion, the Arab League even passed a resolution warning against outside intervention in the conflict.

But Bush, ignoring the verbiage, took swift action to assure Iraq’s neighbors that America wouldn’t leave them to face Iraq alone. Within a week, two naval battle groups had deployed to the area and more than 80 fighter jets had begun patrolling Saudi Arabia’s border. More forces arrived subsequently.

Only then did he start forming his coalition to invade Iraq. And with their protection assured, nine Arab states ultimately joined it.

Today, too, Arab states won’t publicly support attacking Iran without the surety that America will follow through. Nor can you blame them: they’re the ones who will have to live with a vengeful nuclear neighbor if America punts.

But you can certainly blame Washington for the delusion that gestures on an unrelated issue would suffice to allay a well-grounded existential fear — and be deeply worried that American leaders could misread the situation that profoundly.

Read Less




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