Thursday, April 14, 2011

Iran, the New U.S. Position on Bahrain, and the Dick Cheney Scale of Meddling

Wonder no more! The long-awaited U.S. evidence of Iranian "meddling" in Bahraini affairs has finally been revealed in an exposé in the Wall Street Journal. So what is this damning piece of evidence catching the Iranians red-handed? Did the U.S. intercept an arms shipment to Bahraini "rebels?" Record a telephone call from opposition sponsors in Iran revealing a plan for an impending invasion? Capture e-mails and text messages containing sensitive information about Bahrain's military installations for use by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard?

Actually, not quite. It turns out that the evidence that Iran is meddling in Bahrain is that... it is providing logistical support to the Syrian government, "providing gear to suppress crowds and assistance blocking and monitoring protesters' use of the Internet, cellphones and text-messaging." Now, I'm no logician, but there must be some sort of logical fallacy best expressed in Latin that describes this argument. Iran is interfering in A, ergo it is interfering in B. Never mind that A happens to be a government it's long-supported while B is a nebulous group of opposition demonstrators that happen to adhere to its state-sponsored religious beliefs.

To put this level of Iranian interference into perspective, refer to the Dick Cheney Scale of Meddling below (a nod to the Gary Busey Scale of Ugliness), where 0 represents no involvement and 10 represents Dick Cheney-esque levels of meddling. We see that Iran currently earns only about a 3.0 rating. Although I suppose this represents an upgrade from its previous level as indicated by Gates' comments last week in Riyadh that the U.S. has evidence that the Iranians "are TRYING to exploit the situation in Bahrain."

Except actually it isn't. The Wall Street Journal piece goes on to read more like an indictment of the Bahraini government than an exoneration, lending even further evidence to my inkling expressed in yesterday's article that we are beginning to see a subtle change in the U.S. position toward Bahrain, one driven by the realization that the political cesspool that is Bahrain is highly advantageous for Iranian foreign policy.

We read, for example, that "[s]ome U.S. officials have expressed surprise that Shiite-dominated Iran hasn't intervened more aggressively to support Mr. Assad and Shiites in Bahrain" (my emphasis), which is hardly an endorsement of the Saudi and larger GCC position.

Then we get to a very interesting paragraph:
The Obama administration repeatedly pressed Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Bahrain not to use force against largely Shiite protesters, according to U.S. officials, fearing that would provide Iran with an excuse to start meddling in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East. ... "We told them not to use force because it would provide Iran with an excuse," a senior U.S. official said. "They didn't listen."
Again, not exactly a show of solidarity with the Bahrainis and Saudis. Then:
A U.S. defense official said Iranian policy makers are seriously debating how much aid, if any, to provide to Bahrain's opposition. Another U.S. official said some intelligence indicated that Iran has made small-scale transfers of money and light weapons—"a few dozen guns, maybe less, definitely not more"—into Bahrain. Much of the intelligence suggests Iran and Hezbollah were focused now on using propaganda to assert influence among restive Shiites.

Other Iranian officials appear content to let Bahrain's leaders become more repressive, which the defense official said is "probably more effective at getting people riled up against the king" than anything Tehran could do.
Therefore, despite the introductory claims of the article that "by voicing concerns about Iran's activities, the U.S. appears to be trying to close ranks, at least in part, with Saudi and Bahraini leaders whose warnings about Tehran's influence in their internal affairs have long been played down in Washington"--despite these claims, in fact it seems that the new U.S. disclosures reveal its skepticism of the GCC's argument.

As we wrote yesterday, it seems administration brass are realizing that the best way to make sure that Iranian influence DEFINITELY grows in the region is to allow a Mideast-wide Sunni-Shi'i split to fester as a result of political stagnation in Bahrain. Indeed, as quoted above, the Iranians are happy to allow Bahrain's rulers do their dirty work for them--"getting people riled up against the king" through their own doings rather than through any direct interference from abroad. All Iranian leaders have to do now is sit back and watch the violence and continued stalemate linger in Bahrain, with the knowledge that more and more ordinary Bahrainis are likely to view the country as their sole supporter amid a sea of GCC occupiers. (Update: this basic argument is now being taken up by Hussein Ibish in Foreign Affairs, who asks whether the Bahraini government is creating "a new terrorist threat.")

And finally, the U.S. cannot be pleased with the growing independence of the GCC as a regional bloc and of the Saudis in particular, who chose yesterday to announce a new deal with the Chinese to begin a "domestic nuclear program"--though strictly for energy purposes. Sound familiar?

Expect the U.S. to start increasing the pressure a few notches in Bahrain. The Guardian is already demanding it, and this State Department statement seems to be a tentative movement in that direction.

Update: Well, all of this has now come true, though mostly at the Bahraini government's own doing. The U.S. and others have spoken strongly against the decision to "investigate" al-Wifaq and the Islamic Action Society, and the U.S. Undersecretary for Near Eastern Affairs is headed to Bahrain next week for what will be, one imagines, some interesting meetings.

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