What happens if you make legal protest impossible? In some countries—e.g., Russia and China—you wind up with one-party rule. Those countries have secret police forces efficient enough to squelch most dissent and rulers canny enough to manufacture their own popularity. Dissidents, by contrast, have little if any outside backing. That’s not what is happening in Bahrain, a tiny American ally (population 1.4 million) on the Persian Gulf (or as Arabs like to call it, the Arabian Gulf) where a Sunni ruling family is attempting to keep control of a restive, mostly Shiite populace.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent 1,500 troops and armored vehicles to help Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifa family squelch street demonstrations. Five years later, in 2016, the government dissolved the major Shiite opposition party, Al-Wefaq, and stripped the citizenship of the senior Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, who is currently awaiting trial on charges of money laundering and collecting funds illegally.
This clumsy repression isn’t creating peace and stability. Instead, it is creating an armed insurgency supported by Iran, which regards Bahrain as nothing more than a wayward Iranian province. The Bahraini government has long been claiming that Iran is supporting the Shiite dissidents, but its claims have been mostly met with incredulity among Western governments who believed the royal family was concocting the Iranian links to justify its own repression. But now the evidence, as the Washington Post noted, has become undeniable—and alarming.
Documents and interviews with current and former intelligence officials describe an elaborate training program, orchestrated by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to school Bahraini militants in the techniques of advanced bomb-making and guerrilla warfare. A wide variety of increasingly sophisticated weaponry — much of it forensically linked to Iran — has been discovered in Bahrain over the past three years, including hundreds of pounds of military-grade explosives that almost certainly originated in Iran, U.S. and European intelligence officials say. The efforts appear to mirror similar ongoing operations to build a network of pro-Tehran militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East, from Yemen to Iraq and Syria, several analysts said.
The Iranian-supplied arms found in Bahrain include “418 pounds of C-4, an amount comparable to the quantity used by al-Qaeda to blast a 40-foot hole in the Navy destroyer USS Cole in 2000,” and “at least $35,000 worth of Chinese- and Italian-made metalworking equipment … to craft expertly made ‘explosively formed projectiles,’ or EFPs, a kind of improvised bomb designed to blast through military armor.”
U.S. officials are worried, and understandably so, that all of this ordnance could be used not only against Bahraini or Saudi forces but also against U.S. ships and the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is located in Bahrain. This is the backdrop to the decision by the Trump administration last week to resume delivery of F-16s to Bahrain, which had been stopped by the Obama administration in protest over Bahraini human-rights violations.
But while the growing Iranian threat—along with the Trump administration’s general indifference to the issue of human rights—helps to explain why the F-16 sale is back on, that does not mean it is an appropriate response to Iranian aggression. F-16s are prestigious weapons systems, but they are not very useful for fighting against shadowy insurgents of the kind that Bahrain faces. It’s not as if Bahrain would dare to bomb Iran in retaliation.
The U.S. would be better advised to give Bahrain some tough love by explaining to the ruling family that repressing all Shiite dissent only drives peaceful protesters into the arms of terrorists supported by Iran’s Quds Force. The Bahrainis would be better advised to honor their pledges to redress legitimate grievances, end the torture of detainees, stop locking up non-violent protesters, and provide more room for free speech and peaceful protest.
Such steps would make it immensely easier for the security forces to target and identify the violent, Iranian-backed terrorists by winning more active cooperation from the “silent majority” of Shiites who want greater representation but don’t want to be ruled by Iranian theocrats. Instead, the royal family is likely to continue with its blunderbuss policy of repression, now with the blessing of the United States, which runs the risk of creating a civil war in this tiny state.