Paul Pillar

Hard and Soft Power in Bahrain

The island kingdom of Bahrain has stuck out as a kind of sore thumb in the Persian Gulf ever since the Arab Spring got under way. It is the only one of the six monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council that has seen major political unrest during these past two or three years. It also is a place where U.S. objectives don't really fit together. Two principal attributes of Bahrain underlie these observations.

One is that it has a Shia majority, constituting about 70 percent of the Bahraini population, but is ruled by a Sunni regime. In that respect it is like Iraq before Saddam Hussein's ouster and unlike the other GCC states, which all have Sunni majorities. Economic patterns correlate with religious ones; Bahraini Shia are generally less well off than their Sunni countrymen.

The other attribute is that Bahrain has a major military relationship with the United States, including being the home of the Fifth Fleet. This fact evidently has dominated the thinking behind U.S. policy on Bahrain. It has been a major disincentive against rocking boats regarding political and economic rights of the Bahraini people. When Saudi Arabia sent forces across the causeway to help the Bahraini regime quell Shia unrest, the United States did not make an issue of it.

In this part of the world a major expressed U.S. concern is, of course, Iran and Iranian influence. Bahrain is of special interest in this regard because of a keen Iranian interest in the place. There have been Iranian statements, going well back before the advent of the Islamic Republic, describing Bahrain as rightfully a province of Iran. During early years of Islamic Republic's history there certainly were Iranian efforts at subversion in Bahrain. In more recent years, however, there is no indication that Iran is trying to topple the Bahraini regime. Iranian influence comes in a softer form as a champion of greater rights for the majority of the population.

This week Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi gave Iran's soft power a new twist by stating that the Bahraini government had requested secret Iranian mediation between itself and its domestic opposition. Salehi said Iran was willing to use its good offices for this purpose but only openly, not secretly. The Bahraini foreign ministry denied that Bahrain had made any such request of Iran. It is impossible to know whom to believe, but it is plausible that Manama might have communicated with Iran about the need to use its influence with the Shia majority constructively. If Iran really were to contribute openly to political reconciliation in Bahrain that would be good, and would be the antithesis of clandestine subversion.

If the United States really is concerned about Iranian influence in this corner of the Persian Gulf, it is not shaping its relations in a way that effectively counters that influence. Whatever other purposes the Fifth Fleet may serve, there is not a plausible external military threat to Bahrain that the fleet defends against or deters. Meanwhile, concern about protecting this military equity has led the United States mostly to turn a blind eye to the unresolved internal conflict that is the real danger to the Bahraini political order and which has helped Iran in posing as a friend of the majority of Bahrainis.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Abadi Moustapha. CC BY 2.0.