- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2010

Bahrain on Sunday sought to “clarify” comments made last week by its U.S. ambassador about the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the tiny island kingdom.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Ambassador Houda Nonoo said, “We’re a small country. We are just across the pond. It’s a small gulf — we are just 26 miles away from Bushehr [an Iranian nuclear site]. So if Iran becomes nuclear, then it will become an issue.

She said her fears derived in part from the fact that “Iran has had claims in the past on Bahrain.”

“The latest claim was on their 30th anniversary in February 2009, where they mentioned Bahrain as the 14th province,” Ms. Nonoo said. “Very similar to [Saddam Hussein’s] Iraq mentioning Kuwait as their 19th province. We don’t want to go down that way. Bahrain has to be independent. We don’t want to have anybody else taking over.… If Iran has [a nuclear] capability, nobody is going to be able to stop them.”

She also cast doubt on the efficacy of current sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, saying they “never had a chance of working.”

In a statement posted on the state-run Bahrain News Agency, the Foreign Ministry said: “It appears that [the ambassador’s comments] may have been inaccurately reported, or have been misinterpreted or misunderstood, and the ministry is pleased to further develop and place [them] in context.”

Ms. Nonoo could not be reached for comment Monday.

The Foreign Ministry statement, which was reported by Press TV and Fars News Agency, two Iranian state-controlled media outlets, expanded on her remarks without explicitly denying them.

“Bahrain has consistently made clear its support for the right of all states to the peaceful civilian use of nuclear energy, transparently and in accordance with the relevant international framework and safeguards,” the statement said. “Bahrain has made clear on a number of occasions that the Islamic Republic of Iran is no exception to this right.”

“At the same time, Bahrain has also called on Iran to demonstrate full transparency and co-operation with the international community, including the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], to address any concerns over its nuclear program. The Ambassador’s remarks were not intended to, and did not, deviate or detract from this consistently established position.”

Iran repeatedly has said its nuclear program is not aiming to make an atomic bomb.

Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, is one of several Sunni-led Arab countries said to be fearful of a nuclear-armed Iran.

At a public forum in July, United Arab Emirates Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al-Otaiba said: “If you are asking me, ‘Am I willing to live with [the fallout from a preventive strike on Iran] versus living with a nuclear Iran,’ my answer is still the same: We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.” The UAE Foreign Ministry immediately claimed that his comments had been taken out of context and that the country rejects the military option.

“This is the game,” said Toby Jones, professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University. “The Bahrainis — like the Saudis, like the Kuwaitis — are attempting to balance a couple of things.

“One is to maintain the correct diplomatic posture with the Iranians and to concede on technicalities where the Iranians are in the right, while at the same time making clear periodically that the Iranians are up to no good — and then subsequently denying it.

“But essentially, it’s like asking the jury to disregard an unacceptable comment in the courtoom. You can’t strike it from the record.”

Mr. Jones, who served as a Bahrain-based consultant for the International Crisis Group from 2003 to 2006, said he found the Foreign Ministry statement more interesting for what it did not say.

“They didn’t correct or place into context her implication that Iran has its eye on Bahrain,” he said. “That seems like a pretty significant oversight.”

“It wasn’t too long ago that the Iranians routinely made claims on Bahrain,” said Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Iran’s ability to throw its weight around the region is a major cause for concern for Bahrain and a reason why it has been willing to host the 5th Fleet.”

“That said, the Bahrainis — like all the small Gulf states — have been careful to hedge their bets, given that they are not at all clear about Washington’s intentions and policies,” he said. “They don’t trust ‘engagement’ and after Iraq, they aren’t convinced that the United States has the will to undertake military action. That’s why the Foreign Ministry walked the ambassador’s comments back.”

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