Analysis on the potential sale of weapons by the US to the Kingdom of Bahrain, and the implications this would have for both countries.
In October, after tremendous international and Congressional outcry, the Obama Administration reluctantly delayed a planned $53 million arms deal with the Kingdom of Bahrain. The deal, for 300 missiles, including 50 of the rarely sold “bunker-busting” type, 44 armored vehicles, and other weapons, will now be reconsidered since the November 23 release of the human rights report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The report paints a picture of systematic violence, torture, and humiliation by the Ministry of Interior, the National Security Agency, and the Bahraini Defense Force. The arms sale must be stopped. The human rights implications are obvious, but the more pressing matter is the fact that these weapons are designed to check Iranian regional influence but would in fact do the opposite. The sale would give protesters a strong reason to turn to the Iranian government for support, thereby inviting a stated enemy of the US to increase its influence over a key regional ally. It is in the American national interest to not make this sale.
Strategic military interests dominate the US relationship with the Kingdom of Bahrain. For nearly 60 years, the US has maintained a military presence in Bahrain, a small island in the Persian Gulf, connected by a 25km long causeway to the eastern edge of Saudi Arabia. The US presence expanded in 1995 when the US Navy reactivated its 5th Fleet. Approximately 30 ships, several thousand land-based soldiers, and roughly 30,000 sailors at sea, are stationed on the island.
Internally, the Kingdom of Bahrain is demographically divided. Of the roughly 700,000 Bahraini citizens, nearly 70% are Shi’a Muslims, while the remaining 30% are Sunni. Yet, it is the 30% Sunni who control nearly all levers of power in the country. The ruling al-Khalifa family is Sunni and has led the country while practicing systematic discrimination towards the Shi’a population, depriving them of equal access to jobs, denying opportunities for promotion, and even excluding them from living in large areas of the country. When the Arab Spring reached the island on February 14, 2011, the predominantly Shi’a protesters demanded a more equal society. The al-Khalifa family, supported by regional allies, felt threatened by the Shi’a uprising and violently repressed the peaceful protesters by murdering, torturing, and imprisoning thousands. This systematic discrimination is supported by the BICI report, which recorded that non-Shi’a are responsible for just 9 out of 559 total reports of human rights violations.
Regionally, Bahrain has become a microcosm of the Sunni/Shi’a divide. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – the bulwark of Sunni Islam, and the Islamic Republic of Iran – the bastion of Shi’a Islam, have used Bahrain as an opportunity to exert influence on each others’ borders. US ally Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, sent troops into Bahrain under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Commission’s Peninsula Shield Force, in an unprecedented move to protect the interests of the Sunni regional order from the threat ostensibly posed by Iran. And while the report found no “discernible link[s] between specific incidents” in Bahrain and Iran, it is within this context that we must examine the potential sale of heavy military equipment to Bahrain.
In 2002, President George W. Bush named Bahrain a “Major non-NATO Ally,” thereby placing the country in league with Israel, Japan, and South Korea. This designation, and the “war on terrorism,” boosted arms sales to the country, some of which were used against protesters in the recent uprisings. Adding more lethal missiles, especially armored vehicles, to the Bahraini arsenal, threatens to push protesters into more radical positions, perhaps even choosing to court Iranian support, as the region’s only country not firmly in the US sphere of influence.
Protesters in Bahrain have seen and heard US support for other uprisings in the region, contrasted with the lack of support by senior US officials for the movement in Bahrain. In a September speech at the United Nations, President Obama did not criticize the Bahraini government’s violent crackdown, but praised the efforts of protesters elsewhere. This double standard has not gone unnoticed by protesters in Bahrain. The logic from the point of view of a Bahraini protester is obvious here: if the United States, the supposed bastion of democracy, will not even stand up for our right to live in freedom, then we must at least entertain the idea of securing support from other sources, perhaps even from Iran.
The Bahraini government recognizes the potential power of the Iranian connection to the protests. Despite a lack of evidence, King Hamad emphasized the role that Iranian propaganda played in “fuel[ling] the flames of sectarian strife” during the protests. The government has played up the potential threat posed by Iran, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire several prominent Washington DC public relations firms to publicise the Bahraini government position, which seems to be: we, the Bahraini government, are trying to prevent Iranian influence in the region, so please don’t criticize our violence and please help us counter this threat. Their position is a potent one in DC, where Iran is viewed almost as an existential threat and any potential aggression, proven or otherwise, is perceived as a national security concern. However, a fight on this issue can be completely avoided were the US to halt the sale of these weapons, for cancelling this sale would preclude increased Iranian influence and is therefore in the US national interest.
While the potential threat posed by an increased Iranian presence in Bahrain is reason enough to halt the weapons sale, there are several other reasons why this sale must be stopped. First, the sale of these weapons will not achieve the stated goal. These weapons are officially designated for external defensive purposes; however, the Bahraini security forces are woefully unequipped to handle a threat from their only potential regional adversary, Iran. It is particularly questionable how effective these armaments will be as the Bahraini military numbers approximately 20,000 soldiers. By comparison, the Iranian army has approximately 545,000 soldiers. It is highly unlikely that the Bahraini military would be able to defend against an Iranian attack. Further, Saudi Arabia, the patriarch of the Bahraini regime and a recent recipient of a $60 billion US arms deal, would unquestionably side with Bahrain and play a critical role in any conflict. Additionally, the Pentagon is reportedly considering supplying the United Arab Emirates with the same “bunker busting” missiles, among other armaments, to assist in countering any Iranian influence in the region. The Bahraini government should rest assured, it is in well-armed company.
Finally, to preserve its strategic presence, the US military would surely intervene before allowing the government of Bahrain to fall under Iranian influence. This $53 million arms package, in addition to the $1.6 billion in US military salessince 2000 will do little to counter the huge Iranian army and their anti-Western convictions. In sum, the arms deal has no possibility of fulfilling its stated purpose of defending Bahrain from outside threats (meaning Iran), and instead risks pushing Bahraini protesters into the open arms of the Iranian government.
There is a counter argument that the Bahraini Defense Force, properly armed and financed, would be able to play a role in the Peninsula Shield Force that assisted in the preservation of the Bahraini government. However, the desire of the Bahraini government to play a larger role in the Peninsula Shield Force does not necessitate the US selling weapons to them. The US government certainly has an interest in preventing the expanded influence of Iran, but at this time the sale of only $53 million in weapons is not going to counter Iranian efforts. American allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States’ very regional presence help to ensure American interests are protected. The US must not undercut its regional interest through this sale, which will likely achieve nothing militarily, but will further alienate protesting Bahrainis and entirely discredit American efforts at democracy promotion.
Further, the very makeup of the Bahraini security forces threatens increased destabilization in the country, and thus must not be further supported. Opposition groups claimthat the government of Bahrain has a policy of nationalizing and employing non-Bahraini Sunnis in the military and security forces with some claiming that 40,000 people (or 10% of the population) have been nationalized in the past 50 years. The employment of substantial numbers of nationalized citizens in the security forces is likely the result of profound mistrust by the Sunni-led government of the allegiance of Bahraini Shi’a and their willingness to protect the Government’s interests. This policy also weakens the moral and philosophical attachment of these nationalized soldiers to the national cause of Bahrain. This policy would be akin to the US nationalizing Canadians and asking them to protect the American homeland. This idea might work when the hypothetical Canadians are fighting innocent, unarmed protesters, but as soon as another country, Iran in this case, begins fighting back, odds are these mercenaries would desert the cause and cease to fight, threatening increased instability. We just witnessed this in Libya, and it is unlikely to be any different in Bahrain.
Finally, the very existence of an absolute monarchy in the Gulf is in its dying days. The Arab Spring has profoundly changed the relationship between rulers and ruled, and will, in due time, deeply affect the monarchies of the Gulf. In Bahrain, where these sectarian divisions are most ripe for explosion, the tensions have already boiled over. In Saudi Arabia, the financial largess of the regime, which reportedly increased domestic spending by $130 billion for the next five years, will only go so far. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has seen women protesting for their rights, youth stretching the boundaries of the imposed social morals, and most recently, Shi’a in eastern provinces protesting for equal rights. Furthermore, the old age of the Saudi ruling family, a bastion of regional “stability,” will come to haunt the regime as these elites die, like Crown Prince Sultan recently, and as the dynastic succession becomes more ambiguous. Saudi Arabia will lose its authority as a counter-revolutionary force, thereby increasing the likelihood that other Gulf countries, who depend on Saudi largess, will succumb to domestic pressures.
The US has just witnessed how incredibly painful a revolution can be to American regional interests. The downfall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who assisted the US in maintaining its policy towards the Palestinians and suppressing radical Islamists in the country, greatly changed US regional calculus. The US has no interest in the rapid collapse of the Bahraini ruling family, let alone the House of Saud. The US should encourage rapid democratization, not the entrenchment of a disillusioned and barely-clinging-to-power royal family.
When taken together, the sale of these weapons would strengthen the hand of Iran and would reduce American credibility at precisely the time it is needed most. The Arab Spring has profoundly changed the dynamics of the Middle East. Social media has amplified the voices calling for change in Bahrain. Were the US to complete this sale, the Government of Bahrain would be incrementally better armed, but would find itself facing a more determined and externally supported internal opposition.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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