On June 29, State Department spokesman John Kirby announced that the United States had lifted certain holds on security assistance to both the Bahrain Defense Force and Bahrain’s national guard, citing improvement in the area of human rights reform. The New York Times further reported that the United States would continue its policy of not supplying equipment to the Interior Ministry. The Obama administration’s strategy in the Middle East has been to eschew direct involvement, preferring instead to lean on regional partners to accomplish its goals. With the Islamic State on the rise, a civil war in Syria and Iran continuing to push for influence even as it negotiates with the United States, lifting nominal restrictions on Bahrain is a symbolic gesture meant to boost confidence in Saudi Arabia and other U.S. partners in the region. It is also indicative of the evolution of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the wake of the recent uprisings across the Arab world. This foreign policy has increasingly discarded the notion that American values and political interests can be aligned and has opted instead for simple political realism.
Bahrain’s importance to the United States as a regional ally in the Middle East is inversely proportional to the kingdom’s size. With a population of just over 1 million, Bahrain’s importance to the United States lies in its strategic location in the Persian Gulf. The United States has maintained a naval base in Bahrain since 1947, and the U.S. 5th fleet has been stationed there since 1995, along with numerous other U.S. naval forces. The United States has used facilities in Bahrain while conducting numerous operations, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the U.S. relationship with Bahrain is in some respects as close as Washington’s relationship with its NATO allies: In October 2001, then-U.S. President George W. Bush decided that Bahrain was entitled to purchase the same military equipment as NATO members.
The relationship is just as important for Bahrain, if not more so. Like its neighbor Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has depended on a close relationship with the United States for many decades. And like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain fears a Middle East in which Iran is able to project more power. Of all the Gulf monarchies, Bahrain has perhaps the most to fear from the sectarian battles that now define the Middle East. The Sunni al-Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since 1783 when the Persians were ousted, but 70 percent of Bahrain is Shiite, and furthermore Bahrain’s Shiite population has not fared as well economically as Shiites in other countries in the region. Unlike in nearby Kuwait, where the Islamic State staged a suicide bombing at a mosque during Friday prayers last week to inflame sectarian tension, Bahrain has a history of social unrest and violent revolt from its Shiite population, as well as of broader social unrest, as seen in the 1960s and 1990s. All the Gulf Cooperation Council states are wary of Iran, but Bahrain is especially so. It accused Iran of supporting Shiite discontent in Bahrain in 2011, and in general it fears Iran will try to reassert itself in Bahrain.
The Origins of U.S. Restrictions
The mainstream media narrative is that the U.S. security restrictions on Bahrain were initially levied in the wake of the failed Pearl Revolution of 2011, which was dealt with harshly by Bahrain’s security forces and ultimately crushed by a combined Saudi-UAE military force. This is only partially true. While foreign military financing did fall considerably after the crackdown, mere months later, on Sept. 14, 2011, the United States announced a $53 million sale of armored Humvees and anti-tank missiles to Bahrain. Congress attempted to block the sale, and additional pressure from the State Department succeeded in convincing the administration to delay the sale until further inquiries could be made. Only in January 2012 did the State Department finally put the deal on ice, and only in May 2012 did the Obama administration announce that any equipment that could be used against protesters would not be provided to Bahrain until it implemented sufficient political reforms.
Even these restrictions were not particularly onerous. The United States still delivered millions of dollars in military equipment, ranging from missiles to small arms, to Bahrain from 2012 until the present. In fact, U.S. foreign military financing to Bahrain actually increased by more than $2.5 million from 2012 to 2013. The United States opted for a gentle slap on the wrist, realizing its relationship with Bahrain was too important for Washington to jeopardize despite its disapproval of the crackdown.
Relations between Bahrain and the United States became tense again in July 2014, after Tom Malinowski, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, visited the country. Malinowski was declared persona non grata and was expelled from Bahrain after meeting with the head of the country’s largest Shiite group, Al Wefaq. At the time, Stratfor noted that the reason the Bahraini leadership took such a harsh step was the same reason that the United States has seen its relations with Saudi Arabia sharply deteriorate in the past year. Between declining to overthrow the government of President Bashar al Assad in Syria, even after al Assad violated Obama’s famed chemical weapons red lines, and fervently seeking an accommodation with Iran, there was a great deal of room for Bahrain to protest. Washington responded with an appropriate level of indignation and suspended arms sales to the Bahrain Defense Force until Malinowski was allowed back and Bahrain demonstrated progress in the field of human rights. Furthermore, it was reported that any equipment or assistance intended for Bahrain’s Interior Ministry, in large part responsible for the violent crackdowns, had been suspended indefinitely. Bahrain still received a significant amount of foreign military financing from the United States in fiscal year 2015 — to the tune of approximately $7.5 million — but that represented a 40 percent decrease from the previous level.
The spat, to the extent that there was one, was short-lived: By Dec. 3, 2014, Malinowski had returned to Bahrain to make another visit and this time was not asked to leave the country, one of the preconditions for lifting the U.S. security restrictions. It is less clear whether Bahrain has made gains in the field of human rights. Al Wefaq and the rest of Bahrain’s majority Shiite boycotted parliamentary elections in November. Rather than a response to human rights considerations, the easing of restrictions was more likely a way for the United States to signal support for its nervous ally, especially as negotiations with Iran continue apace.
The lifting of these restrictions is reminiscent of how the United States chose to handle the toppling of Mohammed Morsi in 2013. The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty brokered by the United States has been the bedrock of relations in the Levant since it was signed, and as a result Egypt abandoned its former patron (the Soviet Union) and has become a key U.S. strategic partner for more than 30 years. One of the stipulations of that treaty is that the United States provide Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid each year, accounting for approximately 20 percent of Egypt’s military budget. The yearly U.S. House Appropriations Act, however, is very clear that the United States cannot provide military aid to a country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’etat,” which is precisely how Morsi was deposed. For months, the United States sat on its hands, deciding only in October 2013 that a significant amount of military aid should be held back until Egypt implemented democratic reforms, and it never actually classified Morsi’s downfall as a coup.
That freeze on aid was also short-lived; Washington announced March 31 that it was returning its military aid dispersals to Egypt to their previous levels, deciding to implement a few key conditions on the mechanics of dispersing the aid rather than to wait until Egypt held parliamentary elections. The timing of that easing was also notable, as it came just after Egypt announced it would participate in a Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. U.S. officials told The Guardian that Washington’s relationship with Egypt was still strong and had simply undergone a “recalibration.”
Washington’s traditional partners in the region — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain among them — have been public about their displeasure that the United States is courting an understanding with Iran. In response, these U.S. partners are looking for new patrons. Egypt for its part is rekindling ties with an old friend: Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited in February, Moscow agreed to supply Egypt with $2 billion worth of arms (financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), and the two countries held their first joint naval exercise in June. Egypt is moving to diversify its military suppliers, inking deals with France, Germany and China in the past year. Saudi Arabia is also deepening its relationship with Russia; Deputy Crown Prince Salman was in Russia on an official visit to see Putin on June 17. Bahrain, too, has had recent dealings with Russia. The king visited Russia last October, and Russia’s ambassador said June 19 that Russia was ready to offer Bahrain technical military aid.
Obama has made signing a deal with Iran his top foreign policy goal, and as a result the United States is involved in a careful dance, trying to reassure its long-time partners in the region while it pursues a good faith deal with Iran, the country many U.S. partners consider to be a looming menace. Nevertheless, the United States has lost some leverage with those partners; it is sacrificing a certain degree of closeness and influence in order to bring about a broader balance of power within the region. The U.S. removal of restrictions on security assistance to Bahrain exemplifies Washington’s efforts to maintain those relationships in some form. The removal is of nominal importance at best and has little to do with U.S. moral indignation about domestic political reform in Bahrain. It is a superficial move that demonstrates just how fragile and intricate a game the U.S. is trying to play.