Commentary Magazine


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.

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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