As Washington surveys the landscape of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it becomes clear that the ensuing chaos resembles something closer to a long, harsh winter than a hopeful beginning. Stability is giving way to chaos, and U.S. interests are increasingly being challenged by “new democrats” — some of whom are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Nowhere in the region are the stakes for American national security higher than in Bahrain. With protests continuing to challenge the ruling family, the key question President Obama and members of Congress have to ask themselves is: Why should Washington care about Bahrain? The answer is clear: The stability of the energy-rich Persian Gulf is tied to Bahrain. Fully 67 percent of the world’s proven crude oil reserves are situated in the Persian Gulf, and approximately 27 percent of the daily global crude-oil exports pass through the territorial waters of Bahrain on the way to consumers worldwide.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which is tasked with maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil. In fact, this tiny island nation of 1 million has been a strategic ally of the United States for more than 60 years. As Adm. William J. Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once noted: “Pound for pound, Bahrain has been and continues to be America’s best friend in the region.” Yet our “best friend” now faces the threat of becoming an Islamic republic.
The specter of an Islamic Republic of Bahrain is a real possibility. While Bahrain’s mainstream opposition has legitimate concerns about jobs, housing and representation in security forces, more radical elements are being encouraged and financed by the religious establishment of Iran and centers in Qom. The Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of Iran’s ruing leader, has called for the annexation of Bahrain to Iran.
Overthrowing Bahrain’s constitutional government has been a goal of Iran’s clerics since they came to power in 1979 and as early as last year, an adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei stated that “Bahrain is Iran’s 14th province.” In fact, Iran has hijacked the recent protests by Bahrainis for better living conditions as a means of toppling this American ally.
The key question President Obama and U.S. policymakers have to ask themselves is: How can Washington protect Bahrain from Iran and at the same time assist its rulers in their challenge to address the grievances of its citizens?
First, Washington must make an unequivocal statement in support of King Hamad. I have met with King Hamad on a number of occasions. This U.S.-educated monarch is a thoughtful and progressive leader, and he, too, understands that economic reforms are necessary to expand Bahrain’s economy — but no economy can grow amid chaos. By making certain that Washington is 100 percent behind King Hamad, he can make the reforms and concessions he needs to appease the opposition — but from a position of strength. One of the fundamental failures of American foreign policy vis-a-vis the shah of Iran was naivete. The genie of Islamic fundamentalism came out of the bottle when President Carter naively thought that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers would uphold human rights if only the shah left the country. We assumed naively (as we do today in Bahrain) that Khomeini was, to use the words of former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, “a saint.”
Second, deeds must follow strong words of support. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel must make a special visit to Bahrain as a show of support and signal to the ayatollahs that we will never abandon our friends.
Third, Washington should invite the son of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and head of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, to the White House to discuss the issue of Bahrain’s security. Our allies also must be told that we will not abandon our allies in their times of need.
In 1979, Washington’s hesitation in supporting its ally the shah and naivete in thinking that just because Khomeini spoke about democracy he was indeed a democrat cost America. American hesitation over engagement in Syria’s mounting chaos has led to a strengthening of the hand of Islamic radicals there. The costs of both mistakes are still with us. Washington must avoid another setback and state loudly and clearly: King Hamad and Bahrain are our friends, and we will never abandon our friends. Instead, we will work with them to overcome every challenge to the benefit of all involved.
S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.