Sunday, September 29, 2013

Bahrain Grips for Pax Americana-Iranica

Presidents Obama and Rouhani deliver "the same speech on Bahrain"

For one living in the Gulf region, the existence of an unspoken alliance between the United States and Iran aimed at undermining the Arab Gulf monarchies is a fact taken for granted. Indeed, how else does explain the U.S.'s systematic post-2001 program of overthrowing Iran's enemies, to say nothing of late-night phone calls between Presidents Obama and Rouhani?  In Bahrain, Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad knew as much way back in July 2011, when he told Al-Ahram that the uprising was "by all measures a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States," the latter aiming "to draw a new map" of the region. "More important than talking about the differences between the U.S. and Iran," he insisted, are "their shared interests in various matters that take aim at the Arab welfare."

Yet for all this, there is still a misconception by many, especially those who've not spent much time in the region, that this idea of a U.S.-Iranian alliance is a view held only by a marginal, conspiratorial minority.  So let me say this clearly: it is not.  While I haven't spoken with enough non-Bahraini Shi'a around the Gulf to generalize, I can say based on extensive experience that GULF SUNNIS DO NOT TRUST U.S. INTENTIONS IN THE REGION. A prominent article in the weekend New York Times offers some indication of this in the context of the Obama-Rouhani phone call, but even here it is framed in a way that downplays the seriousness of the concern.  Jamal Khashoggi is quoted as saying, for example, "There is a lot of suspicion and even paranoia about some secret deal between Iran and America," which again leaves one thinking, "Wow those crazy Gulf Arabs, always with their conspiracy theories!"

Indeed, it is ironic that the New York Times chose also to publish in this weekend's Sunday Review an interactive Middle East map imagining "how 5 countries [Iraq, Syria, Saudi, Yemen, Libya] could become 14," i.e. as a result of the ethnic and sectarian pressures wrought by the Arab uprisings:

The map is ironic in that it resembles closely another (in)famous map depicting a "New Middle East." Prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Peters and published in the Armed Forces Journal in June 2006, it aimed to illustrate a potential outcome of the so-described "New Middle East" project initiated by the Bush Administration with the Iraq War.  The implication was that the United States was not simply witnessing the balkanization of the region but contributing to it and shaping it for its own ends. That such a map should reappear now, then, and with much greater geopolitical plausibility, will recall for many these fears of a decade ago, and the question of whether the U.S. has not perhaps succeeded in its principle of "constructive chaos" in the Middle East.

The reaction in Bahrain to the tentative rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, accordingly, is not one of hysteria, but rather a calm "I told you so." Taking place within the context of what is already a heated debate over U.S. policy toward the country (as symbolized by the U.S. Embassy and more particularly the U.S. ambassador), this development represents but one more piece of ammunition in an already-full magazine carried by the U.S.'s Sunni critics.  Beyond his phone call with Rouhani, Obama's explicit reference to "sectarian tensions" in Bahrain during his speech to the UN also is seen as having emboldened the opposition, which held a large (and authorized) march down al-Budaiyi' Road on Friday attended by 'Isa Qasim, 'Abdullah al-Ghurayfi, and other senior religious figures.  It was a clear day yesterday (I was at the beach!), and the picture is somewhat neat:

For government supporters, of course, Obama's remarks were interpreted somewhat less positively:

Indeed, even former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli got in on the action, "attack[ing] his own country over its attitude to the kingdom." The Gulf Daily News tells, "He sounded an alarm over deteriorating relations with Bahrain and other Gulf countries, and warned that the US 'neglects its allies at its peril.'" Ereli continued,
As one senior member of a ruling family asked me, 'Why can't the US stand by us the way Russia stands by Syria?' We should. America must state clearly what it stands for and who it stands with. The unease we have sown among our allies is damaging to our national security and economic future.

Sooner or later, a crisis will strike this part of the world. It could be conflict with Iran or the bloody hand of terror. Domestic upheaval threatens the very foundation of states. And make no mistake - American jobs and financial stability will be at stake.

Now is the time to mend fences and rebuild frayed ties with our friends in the Gulf. President Barack Obama should take a page from President Clinton's play book. He should tell our friends in the GCC that we feel their pain. He should travel to the region and reassure troubled allies that America is on their side and will work with them in a spirit of common purpose to manage the challenges of a turbulent time. The administration must reverse this troubling trend of neglect. Our future prosperity depends on it.
I wonder if Ereli's remarks are colored at all by his recent (early September 2013) exit from the State Department in favor of the private consulting firm Mercury, which "represents several foreign governments in Washington"?

Whatever the case, Ereli along with many Bahrainis may soon have more to complain about.  A report yesterday in Lebanon's (admittedly pro-Hizballah) Al-Akhbar claims that President Obama recently delivered a letter to King Hamad via Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in which he demands, inter alia, that Crown Prince Salman replace Khalifa bin Salman as head of government. It is not clear whether the directive came from President Rouhani, or from 'Ali Khamenei directly.

Update: Silly Obama thinks he can join a hawza without Bahraini Sunnis noticing:

Update 2: Front page story in yesterday's Al-Watan: "Krajeski Asks Al-Wifaq for a Mass Rally in Support of Obama." Cites a meeting between the U.S. ambassador and 'Ali Salman.

Update 3: Here's one for you: The Editor-in-Chief of Akhbar al-Khaleej Anwar 'Abd al-Rahman published an "expose" this weekend about a U.S. conspiracy against Bahrain and Egypt. "That sounds about right. So what?" you say. Well, this one claimed to be based on an "interview" given to Fox News by retired chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton, in which the latter has all kinds of crazy things to say. Following denials by the U.S. Embassy and Defense Department, which pointed out that Shelton had not been on Fox News since 2010, Akhbar al-Khaleej and English-language sister publication Gulf Daily News have doubled down, affirming they "stand by the story."

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