by Paul R. Pillar
The Trump administration has decided to remove any conditions regarding human rights from sales of F-16 fighter aircraft and other arms to Bahrain. The rationale for doing so is the idea that hard power considerations ought to come before softer concerns for the rights of someone else’s citizens. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, in applauding the decision, said arms sales should be decided by American strategic needs and not commingled with any pressuring of “allies” to change domestic behavior.
Bahrain hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and the island nation is hardly the only place where military access rights have been involved in the United States overlooking abusive domestic policies. Egypt comes to mind as another such country. But at the center of the decision regarding Bahrain is, as David Sanger and Eric Schmitt put it in their coverage in the New York Times, “the Trump administration’s growing determination to find places to confront Iran”. Seeking confrontation is usually not a good thing, and it is not in this case either. It is better first to determine what conflicting objectives, if any, would underlie a confrontation and then, if such a conflict of objectives is found, to find ways either to resolve the conflict or to manage it without the risk of costly escalation. In the case of Bahrain there also is a misconception, implied by Corker’s comments, that the human rights issue is an entirely separate consideration that conflicts with strategic objectives.
That this is a misconception is apparent from reflecting on the political, social, and demographic circumstances of Bahrain. Like the other five Arab countries along the south edge of the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Unlike any of the others, the country has a Shia majority. An unhappy Shia majority, which the regime has given plenty of reason in recent years to become even more unhappy. The human rights situation in Bahrain is bad, and specifically bad for the Shia. The State Department’s human rights report on Bahrain has plenty to talk about, including lack of due process, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and curbs on freedom of expression. Underlying many of the abuses is systematic discrimination against Shia citizens. The independent watchdog organization Freedom House ranks Bahrain among the worst ten percent of countries worldwide in overall personal and political freedom.
The main point for all this regarding the thinking that has gone into U.S. policy is that this is exactly the kind of situation that is ripe for exploitation by outsiders. The more repression and curtailment of human rights, the more fertile is the ground for an outside power to exploit it for influence.
With Bahrain, the obvious outside power to fill that role is Iran, the big Shia-dominated state right on the other side of the gulf. Bahrain has long had a special place in Iranian thinking, and at times in the past the thinking has included thoughts of possible Iranian sovereignty over the island. Those are not operative thoughts now, but there is no way that Iran would not seek to become involved on behalf of its co-religionists amid the bitterness and strife that have marked relations in the past decade between the Bahraini regime and its unhappy subjects. Iranian rhetorical and political support for the rights of the Bahraini majority has been obvious. What kind of material support may be provided is harder to say, given that most reports suggesting such support come from a Bahraini regime eager to play up the idea of Iranian interference.
What is clear is that the worse the human rights situation gets in Bahrain, the more opportunities there are for Iran to enhance its influence. Anyone who professes to worry about Iranian influence thus ought to worry about human rights in Bahrain. Append the further observation that the repeated response by the regime in Manama to internal challenges and dissent has been—if it is not otherwise restrained—to crack down even harder, making the human rights situation even worse.
Those F-16s will do nothing to help keep Iran out of Bahrain. Neither will the Fifth Fleet, for that matter, because conventional armed intervention is not the route of Iranian influence there. The one outside power that has intervened in Bahrain with military force during recent years has been Saudi Arabia, whose armored vehicles rolled across the causeway in 2011 to help the Manama regime put down an especially large set of mass protests. That intervention underscored not only how fragile is the domestic standing of the Bahraini regime but also which power in the Gulf region—and it’s not Iran—has been most willing to use military force to interfere in the internal affairs of neighbors, even when it means suppressing the will of the majority.
The decision on arms sales to Bahrain is only one of several attributes of the Trump administration’s policy so far in the region that appears driven by the urge to seek confrontation with Iran. While any confrontation-seeking is hazardous, this instance of it, like some of the others, also is counterproductive. Underlying all this policy misdirection is a repeated failure to consider carefully what U.S. interests are or are not at stake, and what Iran is or is not doing to oppose those interests. So we have confrontation for the sake of confrontation.