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Why U.S. silence on Bahrain’s crackdown could backfire

As Bahrain’s government intensifies its campaign to crush dissent, the world has been largely silent – embittering protesters and potentially creating an opening for Iran to expand its influence and undermine US-Saudi interests in the region.

As Bahrain’s government intensifies its campaign to crush dissent, the world has been largely silent – embittering protesters and potentially creating an opening for Iran to expand its influence and undermine US-Saudi interests in the region.

In the past week, activists and others who speak out against the Bahraini government’s campaign are increasingly being arrested and others have reported threats to themselves or their families. Security forces have targeted the nation’s majority Shiites for beatings and arrest at checkpoints, and conducted near nightly raids on homes of activists and ordinary citizens. This week a fourth detainee died in police custody in less than two weeks, and witnesses said that his body, like the others, bore signs of abuse.

Bahrain’s government has also sought to wipe out the political opposition, arresting politicians and briefly shutting down the nation’s only independent newspaper. Today the Ministry of Justice announced it has begun proceedings to shut down Bahrain’s largest opposition group, the Shiite bloc al-Wafaq, in a move that further confirms that Bahrain’s Sunni rulers are not interested in a political solution to the crisis.

The silence of the world, and particularly the US, in the face of this campaign is galling to ordinary Bahrainis who oppose the crackdown, who watch the world condemn rulers in Libya, Syria, and Yemen without a mention of Bahrain.

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“We are calling to the US, the United Nations, the EU,” said a man at the funeral of 15-year-old Sayed Ahmed Said Shems in the Shiite village of Saar late last month. Eyewitnesses said police killed the teenager as he played in an alley with his friends. “Where are they?” he wondered as men shoveled sandy soil into the youth’s grave. “Where is the world? Why are they silent?” Like many Bahrainis at this tumultuous time, he asked to remain anonymous for his own safety.

America’s silence in particular is angering Bahrain’s largely Shiite population. While the US initially urged Bahrain’s government to negotiate with the opposition, it has issued no strong condemnation of Bahrain’s use of violence and intimidation since the middle of March, when Saudi Arabia sent more than 1,000 troops into Bahrain to help the government crush the protest movement that started in February asking for democratic reforms.

While the US stance is generally attributed to an attempt to protect regional interests, the festering situation in Bahrain is actually increasing Iran’s opportunity for influence in the region and widening rifts between Arab nations – neither of which are in the interest of the US.

Why the US went silent

Bahrain, an archipelago slightly smaller than New York City, is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf and serves as a counterweight to an Iranian threat. The US and Saudi Arabia fear a Shiite government in Bahrain would be receptive to Iranian influence, possibly jeopardizing the US base there. And Saudi rulers fear that if Bahrain’s Sunni rulers capitulated to protesters demands for reform, it could energize the Islamic kingdom’s own restive Shiite minority to move.

Yet the regional rivalry alone does not explain US silence. Before Saudi troops rolled across the causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, the US had pushed Bahrain’s government to reach a political solution, sending Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs, to Bahrain multiple times. In a visit to Bahrain that ended just two days before Saudi troops arrived, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that “baby steps” toward reform were not enough.

The US went largely silent when Saudi troops arrived in Bahrain under the aegis the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsula Shield Force, analysts say, out of a desire to repair its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Those ties have been strained since the US urged former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a Saudi ally, to step down from power during a popular uprising. The Saudis viewed the fall of their ally as a dangerous precedent.

America’s credibility, interests damaged

But the US failure to condemn human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini security forces while condemning such abuses in Libya and Syria is undermining any credibility it had with Bahrainis. If Saudi and the US had hoped to curtail Iran’s influence through Bahrain, they may have instead given it an opening.

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Bahrain’s portrayal of its protest movement as sectarian has contributed to an overall increasing of the sectarian divide across the region. That has given Iran “fuel for the fire,” says Justin Gengler, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor whose research has focused on Bahrain.

Indeed, the situation in Bahrain has given Iran repeated opportunities to publicly criticize the oppression of Shiites and criticize Bahrain, leading to increased verbal back-and-forth between Iran and the GCC, which “the US can’t see as very helpful,” says Mr. Gengler. But rifts have also opened in the Arab world. He points to the GCC’s move to ask the upcoming Arab League summit in Iraq to be canceled, likely because Iraq’s Shiite politicians have been vocal critics of Bahrain’s crackdown.

The situation in Bahrain and the US handling of it, he says, has produced changes the US likely didn’t anticipate. “[The US] knew that Bahrain was a lynchpin to the entire Gulf,” he says. “They knew they wanted stability in Bahrain, because a lot of other things could go wrong. But it seems like a lot of other things are going wrong even with what they’re doing.”

Clinton speaks out

In a possible indication it is sensitive to such implications, the US has spoken up twice this week on Bahrain, albeit mildly. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks at the US-Islamic World Forum in Washington on Tuesday, said that despite the long friendship with Bahrain, “we have made clear that security alone cannot resolve the challenges facing them. Violence is not and cannot be the answer. A political process is – one that advances the rights and aspirations of all the citizens of Bahrain.”

And a State Department spokesman, responding to a reporter’s question at a briefing in Washington about the fourth detainee death in police custody, called on Bahrain to ensure the security of detainees and conduct investigations in to the deaths.

While such statements, though mild, are a change from near silence, they will have to go further to satisfy the Bahrainis who bear the brunt of the crackdown.

“We are not different from the Libyan people, from the Tunisian people, from the Egyptian people,” says Sayed el-Mouswi, cousin of the youth killed in Saar, at his funeral. “Why is the US making double standards?”