Bahrain is the tiniest Arab country; it could fit six times over into Rhode Island, with plenty of space left over. When I spent a summer in Bahrain about 15 years ago, I used to bike around the country every weekend for exercise. As the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is among America’s most important Arab allies. After Jordan, Bahrain is the Arab state in which the United States can least afford regime change.
Bahrain is also replete with historical and sectarian baggage. It was a Persian province until the early 16th century, when the Portuguese navy, then using the Persian Gulf as a waypoint on the road to India, seized it. When travelers leave the capital Manama, it’s hard not to stumble over the remains of old Portuguese fortifications. The Iranian government has never fully reconciled itself to Bahrain’s loss. When the British evacuated the Persian Gulf in 1970, the Shah claimed the island. Even though Bahrain is perhaps 70 percent Shiite and almost half the country speaks Farsi at home, a UN-supervised plebiscite determined that most Bahrainis wanted independence.
In 2007, Ali Shariatmadari, an appointee of Supreme Leader Khamenei and editor of his mouthpiece daily Kayhan, renewed the Iranian claim over Bahrain, and Iranian authorities have since repeatedly spoken of Bahrain in the same manner in which Saddam Hussein once spoke about Kuwait. When Iranian officials talk about their desire to transform the Persian Gulf into a Persian lake, they envision sending Bahrain’s Sunni ruling elite packing and returning Iranian dominance to Bahrain in order to rid the region of American influence.
Iran will never have a free hand in Bahrain, however. Connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family sees Bahrain as a frontline in the battle between Sunnis and Shiites. Whenever the Iranians have supported Shiite insurrection and riots, Saudi troops have quietly crossed the causeway to help Bahrain authorities put down the uprising.
The uprising today is not Iranian-inspired, although the Iranian regime may try to hijack it. The case for reform in Bahrain — and the other Persian Gulf states — is real, however. So what might Obama do?
The White House and State Department should make this the moment to promote real constitutionalism. Article 33 of the Bahrain constitution is a dictator’s dream. The list of royal prerogatives can be found here.
Preserve the monarchies — they are more moderate than republics. The royal families also personify unique nationalism, but they should no longer be above the law. Governments should be elected, not dismissed on the whims of a hereditary ruler. At the same time, constitutions might empower national leaders with decisions over defense, for effective defense and defense partnerships require long-term planning and commitment. Realists may want to go back to the old days, when pro-American dictators ruled over fiefs and kept the natives in line; but it is unrealistic to believe those days can continue.
Promoting a constitutional transformation not only in Bahrain but also in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait may present the best hope for renewed stability and preservation of regimes that are essential to U.S. national security.