- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2016

U.S. officials said they were “deeply troubled” by Bahrain’s decision to strip an influential Shiite cleric of his citizenship Monday, a move that has triggered major protests in the tiny Persian Gulf nation and stoked regional tensions between nearby Saudi Arabia and Iran.

While Iran was also quick to criticize Bahrain’s Saudi-backed Sunni leaders, the State Department said Washington’s concerns weren’t about siding with Tehran against the two longtime U.S. allies. Instead, Foggy Bottom said it was worried about the prospect of a larger crackdown on democratic dissent in Bahrain, a close American ally that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

“We are alarmed by the Government of Bahrain’s decision to revoke the citizenship of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Monday.

“We remain deeply troubled by … Bahrain’s practice of withdrawing the nationality of its citizens arbitrarily [and] the overall precedent that this case could establish,” Mr. Kirby said.

The tiny island nation off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula has been in a state of sectarian turmoil since it was rocked by a 2011 uprising by its majority Shiite population, which demanded greater rights from the nation’s Sunni monarchy.

Bahrain’s leaders crushed the protests at the time with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — two Sunni allies long suspicious of Iran and opposed to Tehran’s growing influence in the region.

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Authorities in Bahrain said Monday that their latest action against Sheikh Qassim may have been designed to counter the prospect of Iranian meddling.

Last week saw authorities move to suspend the nation’s main Shiite opposition, Al-Wefaq, whose leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, has been in jail since the 2011 crackdown. Another prominent rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, was arrested last week on charges related to criticizing the government.

The Bahrain News Agency quoted the Interior Ministry as saying the sheikh had played a key role in creating an extremist sectarian atmosphere and had formed groups that “follow foreign religious ideologies and political entities,” an apparent reference to Iran.

Bahraini law allows the government to strip citizens of their nationality if “the person causes harm to the security of the state.” The U.N. says at least 250 Bahrainis have had their citizenship stripped in recent years.

Human Rights Watch said Monday that the decision to strip Sheikh Qassim’s citizenship “takes Bahrain into the darkest days” since 2011. Some 4,000 protesters were gathered outside the sheikh’s house Monday in the Shiite village of Diraz, just west of the capital of Manama.

Despite the U.S. reservations, Saudi Arabia’s senior council of clerics welcomed Bahrain’s recent crackdown

The top commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, meanwhile, warned Monday that Bahrain’s rulers will pay a price. “[They] surely know their aggression against Sheikh Isa Qassim is a red line,” Gen. Qassem Soleimani said according to Iran’s Fars news agency. “Crossing it would set Bahrain and the whole region on fire, and it would leave no choice for people but to resort to armed resistance.”

Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite militant group, also denounced the decision on its Al-Manar TV network, according to The Associated Press, warning that the move against the cleric would have “grave consequences.”

The Obama administration’s pursuit of last summer’s nuclear accord with Iran has prompted some analysts to claim the White House is increasingly aligning itself with Tehran, much to the ire of Riyadh. Mr. Kirby brushed that aside Monday, claiming his comments on Bahrain had nothing to do with choosing sides.

“There is no new U.S.-Iranian relationship on larger matters,” he said. “We certainly didn’t come down on our views on this decision based on sectarian preferences, of which we have none. We came down on this because we believe that Bahrain has an obligation … to due process and the rule of law.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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