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Is Bahrain a dry run for controversial US-Saudi pact?

Is Bahrain a dry run for controversial US-Saudi pact?

Critics say any Persian Gulf security agreement via executive order will not serve American interests

Analysis | Middle East

For the United States to commit itself in advance to take the side of some other country that becomes involved in an international conflict is an extraordinary step that is justified only under extraordinary circumstances.

There needs to be a credible external threat to the country being protected. And there must be enough commonality of interests and values between the United States and the protected state that the difference between that state falling or not falling to external aggression is highly significant for U.S. interests.

A possible standard for measuring the appropriateness of security commitments is the grandest such U.S. commitment, under the North Atlantic Treaty. Whatever one may think of NATO’s later expansion and out-of-area activities, the circumstances justifying a U.S. security commitment were present when the alliance was created in the late 1940s. The Soviet Union’s military had overrun Eastern Europe and converted its states into satellite communist dictatorships. If the then-fragile democracies of Western Europe experienced the same fate, the result would have been disastrous for U.S. interests.

Nothing remotely resembling those circumstances exists today in the Persian Gulf region. No Red Army is poised to take over the region. No would-be regional hegemon exists. Certainly not Iran, weakened by sanctions, preoccupied with internal divisions, and facing the disadvantage of being an ethnic and religious minority in a region that is largely Arab and Sunni.

Saudi Arabia is the state that has had the most recent go at something approaching regional hegemony. It has employed military force outside its borders to prop up an unpopular regime in Bahrain and, on a much larger scale, to try to impose its will on Yemen through a highly destructive air war. That attempt failed, and Riyadh evidently has come to realize that its security is better served through accommodation rather than a quest for domination.

Nor is there anything in the region like the difference, in terms of values and interests, that there was in 1940s Europe between Western democracies and Soviet satellite dictatorships. The Gulf Arab states are absolute monarchies. The only thing in those states that sounds close to democracy is a mostly elected National Assembly in Kuwait, but whenever that body gets too noisy and difficult to suit the ruling regime, the emir simply dissolves it.

Despite these circumstances, the Biden administration is extending security guarantees to Gulf states, most recently by signing a Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement with Bahrain. The agreement commits the United States, “in the event of external aggression or the threat of external aggression” against Bahrain, to “immediately meet at the most senior levels to determine additional defense needs and to develop and implement appropriate defense and deterrent responses as decided upon by the Parties, including in the economic, military, and/or political realms.”

An anonymous administration official took pains to point out that the agreement is not a treaty and therefore does not need approval by the U.S. Senate. But apparently seeking to have it both ways, the official also stated that the agreement is “legally binding.”

No effort was made to identify what external aggression the parties have in mind. Iran, of course, is the state that automatically gets mentioned as a supposed threat. But the image of Iran mustering a D-Day-like invasion fleet and crossing the gulf to conduct an amphibious invasion of Bahrain is so fanciful as to be absurd (whether or not U.S. warships were in the gulf).

Bahrain certainly has had its differences with Iran, probably at least as much as does any other member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Historical baggage in the relationship includes an old Iranian claim to Bahrain as the “14th province” of Iran, but in recent decades Iran has not tried to act on any such claim. The situation is quite unlike, say, the one involving Taiwan, in which China constantly declares to the world that it considers the island a part of China and periodically uses military saber-rattling to advertise the possibility of an invasion.

To the extent the regime in Bahrain faces a security threat, it involves not external aggression but instead internal strife stemming from an unpopular Sunni regime repressing a largely Shia population. The Saudi military intervention in Bahrain in 2011 was intended to help the Bahraini regime suppress an Arab Spring-era popular uprising.

The regime oppression and popular discontent continue. This year, Bahraini prisoners conducted a months-long hunger strike to protest harsh conditions in the prison. The hunger strike was suspended when the regime, on the eve of crown prince’s trip to Washington to sign the new security agreement, eased some of the conditions. But Bahrain remains a serious violator of human rights.

The unlikelihood of any external aggression against Bahrain means the clause in the new agreement that dictates the response to such aggression probably will not be invoked. The disadvantages of the agreement lie principally in two other areas. One involves getting more deeply in bed with an oppressive regime, with everything that implies regarding the U.S. image among, and relations with, the Bahraini population and Shia generally, among others.

Many external and internal critics of Bahrain are reportedly angered and disappointed by the agreement. The director of the Britain-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said that Bahraini authorities would interpret the agreement as a “green light” to increase political repression.

The other main ill consequence of the agreement is that it runs counter to and undercuts a beneficial trend toward reducing international tensions in the Persian Gulf region. Bahrain’s fellow GCC members have all been moving in the direction of warmer, less confrontational, relations with Iran. Kuwait and Oman have long had businesslike relations with Tehran and have at times served as diplomatic intermediaries for others. Similarly with Qatar, which shares with Iran exploitation of a huge gas field.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates has been improving its relations with Tehran, and this month Saudi Arabia and Iran exchanged ambassadors as implementation of their agreement earlier this year to restore diplomatic relations.

The issue of confrontation versus rapprochement with Iran gets into the larger game that the Biden administration is playing and of which the Bahrain agreement is only a part. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during the signing ceremony, “We’re looking forward to using this agreement as a framework for additional countries that may wish to join us in strengthening regional stability, economic cooperation and technological innovation.”

The additional country the administration clearly has most in mind is Saudi Arabia, which has identified a security pact with the United States as part of the price it is demanding in return for upgrading its already significant relationship with Israel to full diplomatic relations. The administration evidently hopes the agreement with Bahrain can be a model for the kind of pact that would satisfy the Saudi demand while bypassing likely opposition on Capitol Hill.

Despite the effort the administration is putting into brokering an agreement to upgrade relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it still has not explained how any such agreement would serve either U.S. interests or the cause of peace and stability in the Middle East. In fact, it would do neither, and instead would only prolong and even increase confrontation and instability in the region. To understand why, note the principal Israeli objectives in seeking exchanges of embassies and ambassadors with the Persian Gulf Arab states, with which it is not at war.

One objective is to intensify and institutionalize confrontation with, and fear and loathing of, Iran, thereby keeping it as a bête noire that can be blamed for all problems in the region and divert international attention from any problems that involve Israel’s conduct. This means more, not less, tension and risk of escalation in the Persian Gulf region. And that is even before considering more of the Saudi regime’s price for upgrading relations with the Israelis, including more unrestricted arms sales and help with a Saudi nuclear program.

The other Israeli objective is to demonstrate that Israel can enjoy normal relations with regional states while continuing its occupation of Palestinian-inhabited territory. Far from being a “peace” agreement, an upgrading of relations with Saudi Arabia — like the earlier upgrading with Bahrain, Morocco, and the UAE — would be about Israel not making peace with the Palestinians.

Given the extreme right-wing nature of the Israeli government, led by a prime minister determined to keep his coalition intact and keep himself away from prosecution for corruption, any gesture toward the Palestinians that Riyadh and Washington could wring out of Israel would be little more than that — a gesture. It is inconceivable that the current Israeli government would do anything substantial that would bring closer a Palestinian state or any other resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In short, the administration’s project of buying an upgrade of Arab relations with Israel is not justified. And thus, neither is the agreement with Bahrain that is one part of that project.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Bahraini Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on September 13, 2023. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett]

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