- Published on Thursday, 14 April 2011 08:13
- Category: The Connection
The U.S. government once again joined the “blame Iran” game this past week, as Arab regimes across the region are pointing fingers at Iran, blaming it for popular protests in their countries. Dismissing rampant unemployment and unpopular, repressive state tactics, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Egypt have all at one time or another claimed that Iran has somehow deceptively sent protesters into the streets.
These accusations are nothing new in the region, which consistently finds itself at odds with Iran. But when a seemingly unprovoked U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates emerged from a meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and said, “We already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain, and we also have evidence that they are talking about what they can do to try and create problems elsewhere as well,” it was different. With this statement, the U.S. practically gave Bahrain the go-ahead to squash its popular protest with cries of “national defense.” By categorizing Bahraini Shiites’ demands for the most basic human rights as simply an Iranian tool to subvert the Western-friendly country, the finger pointing risks alienating the majority of Bahrain’s population. Consequently, Gates’ comment has dangerous implications for the region, and America’s place in the Arab peoples’ movements.
Bahrain’s Shiites make up 60% of the population and have been marginalized in the country for decades. As in Egypt, thousands of Bahrainis have taken to the streets to cry for increased freedom. These protesters were met with brutal killings, arrests, beatings and an increasingly violent clamp down, scenes of which have regularly made the nightly news across the world. Concerned by the relative ease with which protesters dismantled Egypt’s decades-old dictatorship, the Khalifa regime of Bahrain opted to use overwhelming violence and media repression to keep their grip on power. The government shut down the nation’s only independent newspaper, Al Wasat, claiming it had “fabricated news.” Since the protests began, 24 people have been killed, 800 Shiites have been fired from their jobs, hundreds have been arrested, and many more are living in fear. Reports indicate that officials are even scouring hospitals in search of protesters.
This week, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch denounced Bahrain’s leadership for its “arbitrary detentions.” A Human Rights Watch Middle East head warned, “Bahrain has created a state of fear, not a state of safety.” Government tactics have been largely successful in silencing dissent. Since the initial gatherings, protests have been sparse. For Arab regimes looking to quell protesters, Bahrain’s methods provide a road map, further bolstered by American support of its messaging.
It is true that over the past month, the U.S. has denounced Bahrain’s repressive tactics. After the enforcement of the Libya no-fly-zone, experts including Marc Lynch have argued that the U.S. had to take a stand against Gadhafi’s violent methods, for fear that other leaders in the region might follow his example. This argument makes what might be the strongest case for the Libyan mission. But that response loses legitimacy when placed in juxtaposition to America’s ambivalent response to violence in Bahrain – on the one hand, denouncing the violence and, on the other, echoing the leaders’ baseless claims that Iran is responsible for dissent in the country.
It’s beginning to look like the U.S. is choosing favorites when it comes to repressive regimes (not news to some). Saudi Arabia, long-time friend to the US - and another country built on repression - has consistently pressured the U.S. to support the Bahraini government even as it sent its own troops there to help quell protests. Indeed, given rising oil prices and a potential Iranian hegemony in the region (Arab leaders have long maintained that Arab Shiites are more loyal to Shiite Iran than to their own countries), the U.S. seems keen to protect the region from disintegrating into “chaos.”
But as Shadi Hamid pointed out in Reuters, “Because of its failure to support the demands of the protesters, Bahrain will constantly be threatened by conflict, crisis and chaos. That's not good for stability or security in the region and it's certainly not good for U.S. interests.” Bahrain’s Shiites, whom reports show are split on whether or not to reach out to Iran, may look to Iran for support as their concerns aren’t addressed. Consequently, the outcome America (and Saudi Arabia) are hoping to avoid is likely exactly what will happen. Iraq, too, has a rising Shiite power (many of whom are aligned with Iran) and Iran-supported Hezbullah maintains a strong presence in Lebanon.
As it did with Egypt, the U.S. must pursue back-door diplomacy, urging the Bahraini regime to refrain from violence and provide its Shiite majority with fair political representation. It is quite possible that the U.S. is already pursuing such an approach, but Robert Gates’ inflammatory remark could make it impossible for Shiites in the region to take him or the United States at face value.
A new page was set to turn in the Middle East when, in late March, President Obama delivered a speech that was hailed by analysts as the foundation of his personal doctrine for foreign intervention. The speech’s powerful rhetoric included this memorable line: “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” The President would be wise to consider this message once again, rather than allow U.S. officials to pander to the demands of Gulf dictators who have over-stayed their welcome.BY Kianpars, Aslan Media ColumnistPhoto Credit: Allan Donque