- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bahrain may be the smallest Arab country, but it plays a major role in the overall security of the Gulf region and the Middle East. Among other things, Bahrain serves as the regional headquarters to the U.S. Navy fleet operating in the Gulf. It may be an island, but it is linked to the Saudi Arabian mainland by a 15-mile causeway, taking one straight into the desert kingdom’s Eastern province, the largest oil-producing region in the world. And into one of the more volatile regions on the face of the globe, where all the ingredients for an explosive situation are present: oil, religion and politics.

The following story, which unfolded in recent days in the kingdom of Bahrain, could well serve as the foundation for a John LeCarre novel, with one exception: It was very real and very frightening. It involved foreign powers, intelligence-gathering, counterespionage and terrorist plots.

Or, as the country’s major English-language paper, the Gulf Daily News put it: “A web of lies, deceit and maliciously false information to fuel terrorism in Bahrain was revealed.”

But what exactly was revealed remains a mystery, as the government was reluctant to reveal too much. Much of the Arab world still needs to fully understand the true value of good public relations and the values of letting the public know the truth. It also needs to understand that good public relations is not propaganda.

What is known is that the government of Bahrain has arrested a group of 23 men whom it accuses of plotting to overthrow the government and of resorting to terrorist activities. The government is hinting that “outside forces” are behind the plotters. While Bahrain refrained from naming those outside plotters, a quick look at the region’s map will leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that the accusing finger points at Iran, with which Bahrain has had a series of diplomatic rows in the past. Most Gulf countries refrain from openly naming Iran even when it’s obvious.

Human rights groups, meanwhile, have accused the Bahrainis of resorting to torture to extract confessions from the suspected terrorists. Naturally, both sides deny the accusations. Iran denies it is involved in any illicit business in Bahrain and says relations are based “on mutual respect,” and the Bahrainis deny they have resorted to torture to advance their investigation.

The report of an attempted coup in Bahrain is something that must be taken very seriously and should send warning bells ringing from the shores of Manama, the capital of the tiny kingdom, to the corridors of power in Washington. This is not the story of the boy who cried wolf. Any threats to Bahrain need to be taken seriously.

The country is located strategically at the halfway point of the Gulf. Looking back at Bahrain’s recent history and relations with its giant neighbor Iran, it would be safe to say there is rarely smoke without fire. The population of Bahrain, 729,000, is composed of 70 percent Shiites and 30 percent Sunnis. The Sunnis hold all the top positions of power in the country, from the king on down to every major office. The Shiites, who generally feel they are treated as second-rate citizens, relate to their co-religionists in the nearby Islamic republic. Iran periodically likes to remind the Bahrainis that their island used to belong to Iran and that the Iranians have not forgotten that.

In 2009, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Shiite Iran had sovereignty over Bahrain. In response, Morocco’s King Mohammed sent the Bahraini monarch, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a message of support, calling the Iranian remarks “absurd” and a contradiction of international law and broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. Egypt and Jordan issued statements of support to reassure the island kingdom it could rely on them.

How serious are the accusations and counteraccusations? Iran needs to expand the basis of its revolution in order to survive. Eventually the Iranians are likely to follow up on their threats.

As for the accusations of torture by Bahrain, again, denying it does not help. Neither does torture, although it is used widely throughout the entire Middle East. Before resorting to torture, those who authorize it should do some research. They will find out that under torture, people will admit to anything. Bahrain, in this particular case, has the moral advantage and enjoys the support of the international community. Good PR will go a long way to help. Old-style propaganda will only hinder.

Claude Salhani is a Middle East political analyst.