Tag Archives: Bahrain

Bahrain says Trump better understands Iran and the region

Bahrain’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that US President Donald Trump understood the region and the threats posed by their common adversary Iran better than Barack Obama.

Speaking in an interview with Reuters at his office in the capital Manama, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said the staunch US Gulf ally was confident the new administration would soon clarify its stances on foreign policy.

The Sunni-ruled kingdom accuses Iran, a Shia theocracy across the Gulf, of radicalizing and arming some members of its Shia Muslim majority population, and Gulf monarchies say Obama did not do enough to tackle perceived meddling by Iran in Bahrain and in wars raging throughout the region.

Tehran denies any meddling in the island kingdom.

Trump has pledged to deal forcefully with the Islamic Republic and criticized a landmark international deal to curb its nuclear program inked under Obama in 2015 as a concession to a state the United States considers a sponsor of terrorism.

“We see … a much clearer understanding from the White House of the threats we are facing here in the region and especially the ones that are coming from the Islamic Republic,” Sheikh Khaled said.

“The last few years, there was a policy that we think it was better for them to correct, and we advised them it should be corrected.”

Sheikh Khaled last month met US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has spoken by telephone with senior US officials, including Trump after his election in November.

Sitting astride one of the world’s key oil shipping lanes, Bahrain is a key ally of Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Neither country were among the ban Trump is seeking to impose on travelers from Iran and five other Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East and Africa.

Some critics of the Trump administration fear it is prioritizing the fight against militancy and Iran over promoting human rights among American allies, but the foreign minister said the US shift acknowledged the region’s harsh realities.

“CLARITY IS COMING”

Sheikh Khaled said his country welcomed a decision by the White House to pursue a $5 billion sale to Bahrain of 19 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft and related equipment which was held up last year by concerns about human rights.

He said Trump’s style may have distracted some from the merits of his views, but all administrations had growing pains.

“They’ll get in order … every new administration will always start in a way that will seem unclear, but clarity is coming,” he said, speaking in his green and wood-panelled office adorned with pictures of past and present Bahraini monarchs.

“Maybe when you see the difference in the personality of the president, maybe that’s kind of giving an overwhelming picture of the situation. Things are working in America.”

Since 2011 Arab Spring protests led by Bahrain’s Shi’ites were crushed with the help from some Gulf Arab states, Bahrain says Iran has stepped up a campaign to undermine security there and bring about the downfall of the ruling al-Khalifa family, of which Sheikh Khaled is a member.

“It’s a whole project we are facing and it will not stop until this regime changes its course from the way it is now – hegemonic, theocratic, theo-fascist – to a regime that would answer the aspirations of its own people.”

“Until that moment we will have to defend ourselves.”

Human rights organizations have criticized an escalating government crackdown since the main Shi’ite opposition bloc was shuttered last year, several prominent activist were arrested and the top Shi’ite spiritual leader had his citizenship revoked on corruption charges.

Bahrain says it has acted to reform its security services and that it genuinely seeks dialogue with the opposition in a way that is rare in the mostly closed and authoritarian region.

“We feel like we are being pressured and punished for no reason, just for sticking our neck out and addressing issues that every country has,” Sheikh Khaled said.

Obama sides with Iran over Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE…

As the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia heats up, the Barack Obama administration is trying to straddle the fence and not take sides, but its actions tell a different story — they all seem to favor Tehran.

Following the Saudi government’s announcement Saturday that it had executed 47 prisoners, including a popular Shiite cleric, the U.S. State Department did two things. First, it issued a statement expressing concern that Riyadh’s actions were “exacerbating sectarian tensions.” Then Secretary of State John Kerry called Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, urging him to try to de-escalate the crisis.

Spokesmen for the White House and State Department on Monday insisted that the U.S. was not taking a side, and that Kerry was set to call Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. But U.S. and Arab diplomats tell us that America’s Gulf allies, who feel most threatened by Iran, see things very differently.

The State Department has criticized Saudi Arabia before for executions and its human rights record. But this time, its spokesman, John Kirby, undermined the Saudi claim that Iran’s government was culpable for the attacks on its embassy, noting in his opening statement that Iran appears to have arrested some of those responsible.

What’s more, the Saudis argue that this time the U.S. criticism went too far because the cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was inciting terrorism. “We do not accept any criticism of the kingdom’s judicial system,” al-Jubeir said Sunday. “What happened was that those who have led terrorist operations that led to the killing of innocent people, were convicted.”

Following Saudi Arabia’s decision Sunday to cut diplomatic ties and end Iran-bound commercial flights, Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates also downgraded relations. One senior Gulf diplomat told us he expected other Sunni Arab states would follow suit.

At the root of the problem for Sunni Arab states is the nuclear deal reached last summer by Iran and Western nations. When the White House sold the pact to Congress and Middle Eastern allies, its message was clear: Nothing in the deal would prevent the U.S. from sanctioning Iran for non-nuclear issues. Yet that has not been the case.

Last week, the Treasury Department balked at the last moment on sanctioning 11 entities and individuals it deemed responsible for helping the Iranian government develop its ballistic missile program in violation of United Nations sanctions. Treasury officials had told lawmakers the new sanctions would be announced Dec. 30, but then the announcement never came.

Hill staffers briefed on the issue said that the State Department had intervened at the last minute, following objections by the Iranian government. A senior administration official told us the sanctions weren’t dead and that the U.S. was still working through some remaining issues, but didn’t specify any timetable.

A week earlier, Kerry wrote personally to Zarif to assure him that the Obama administration could waive new restrictions in a law passed by Congress that would require visas for anyone who had visited Iran to enter the United States. The Iranian government had objected that the visa requirement would violate the terms of the nuclear agreement.

Yet Iran’s sentencing of a U.S. journalist on espionage charges in November, and its detention of a U.S.-Iranian dual national in October, have led to no downgrade in relations. The State Department also supported the International Atomic Energy Agency’s closing of its file on Iran’s nuclear program, despite a report from that agencywhich found weapons-related activities had continued to at least 2009, and despite being denied unannounced on-site inspections at key Iranian military facilities.

U.S. officials tell us Iran has extraordinary leverage at this moment, as the world waits for it to implement all of its obligations in the nuclear deal. Iran has begun to remove stocks of low enriched uranium per the agreement, but it still hasn’t made all of the modifications to its nuclear reactor at Arak or completed other tasks it promised in the deal. When Iran makes good on its obligations, most of the assets now in foreign banks will be unfrozen, giving the regime a windfall of tens of billions of dollars.

Critics of the administration say the U.S. should take advantage of the power it has before that money is freed up. “Our maximum leverage to respond to serious non-nuclear issues is before implementation day,” said Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee. “After implementation day, the Iranians get the money and the sanctions are lifted.”

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that the Obama administration sees the Iran deal as the one stabilizing factor in a region that is increasingly spinning out of control, and is therefore giving the U.S.-Iranian relationship top priority.

“The Iranians hold the Obama legacy in their hands,” he said. “We are constrained and we are acquiescing to a certain degree to ensure we maintain a functional relationship with the Iranians.”

At the same time, though, the U.S. is losing leverage over Iran and its ability to influence the actions of the new Saudi leadership is also waning. The Saudis have given up on building ties to the Obama administration and are pursuing their own course until the next president takes office. “It is the worst position for the great power, because everyone says no to us without cost or consequence,” Miller said.

On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest cited Kerry’s effort to include Iran in talks over a political resolution in Syria as evidence that the U.S. has played a constructive role in bridging the sectarian gaps between the region’s most powerful Sunni and Shiite nations.

“The United States has succeeded in leading the international effort to bring all sides together to try to bring about a political resolution inside of Syria,” Earnest said.

Yet some experts believe that Kerry’s Syria peace process unfolding in Vienna, which is premised on getting Iran and Saudi Arabia to work together, is actually counterproductive. After all, during the first meeting, the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers traded accusationsof supporting terrorism before hardening their positions.

“I don’t blame Obama-Kerry and Vienna for the Saudi-Iran blowup. But I do think that the current situation underscores a hidden cost of endeavors like Vienna,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “Riyadh may brush off any criticism from the U.S. as motivated by the perceived interest of Obama in fostering rapprochement with Tehran, reducing our odds of success.”

That’s certainly the signal the Saudis are sending. At this point, the message couldn’t be any clearer. If Obama won’t punish Iran, Saudi Arabia will.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

Hezbollah and the Gulf

Exploring the GCC and Hezbollah’s often tumultuous relationship

Lebanese Shiite supporters of Hezbollah protesting in Dubai in 2006, three years before the UAE began expelling them.

The United States listed Hezbollah as terrorist organization in 1999. The European Union is about to finalize a procedure to list Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization after a bombing in Bulgaria in 2012, as well as its involvement in the Syrian conflict. Bahrain already blacklisted Hezbollah last week, accusing it of instigating protests against the government. It came as no surprise then that all the Arab Gulf states followed suit and decided to consider taking measures against Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which met last Sunday in Jeddah, announced it had “decided to look into taking measures against Hezbollah’s interests in the member states.” But the GCC chief, Abdullatif al-Zayani, did not elaborate on what kind of interests he referred to.

 

Flag of Hezbollah

It was Bahrain’s foreign minister, Ghanem al-Buainain, who submitted the proposal to blacklist Hezbollah to the GCC. Bahrain also banned local political groups from having any contact with Hezbollah last week. The country, ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family, has been shaken by political unrest for two years as Shiite Bahrainis have demanded democratic reforms. Meanwhile, Bahrain’s government has blamed Hezbollah for inciting civil strife.

 

Analysts in Lebanon and abroad say the move goes beyond Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. It also encompasses the broader Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Arab world and an older grudge the Gulf States hold against Hezbollah and its patron (Iran) for past attacks and kidnappings.

 

“The GCC designation comes on the heels of the Bahraini listing, and against the backdrop of heightened regional concern over the activities of Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah,” said Matt Levitt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Hezbollah The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God.

 

“This includes not only Syria, which is the most blatant and immediate example, but also Hezbollah’s delivery of Iranian weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, [as well as] the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah’s activities in Iraq over the last few years,” Levitt pointed out.

 

However, the issue is seen differently from Beirut. According to Kassem Kassir, an analyst of Shiite affairs, “The relationship between Hezbollah and the Gulf countries was very good until recently.” Kassir continued, “We could see the Saudi ambassador always visiting Hezbollah, and during 2006 Hezbollah raised the famous ‘Thank you, Qatar!’ [after Qatar raised millions in aid to war-torn southern Lebanon]. The tension between these countries and Hezbollah is due to Syria, Bahrain, and the Gulf-Iran conflict,” he explained.

 

Apart from Bahrain, the GCC also includes the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman. Each country has dealt with Hezbollah differently over the past decade.

 

Qatar pledged a massive aid package to help rebuild the south after Israel’s devastating war with Hezbollah in 2006. It also played a key role in the resolution of the May 2008 crisis that ended with an agreement signed in Doha. The Emir of Qatar visited southern Lebanon in 2010. But once the Syrian conflict began, and Qatar supported the opposition and Iran/Hezbollah got involved on the side of the regime, the relationship quickly turned sour.

 

Lebanese Shiites also migrated to the booming business environment in the UAE, often establishing companies there. But in 2009, the UAE reportedly started to expel Shiites in general (and Lebanese Shiites in particular). UAE authorities explained the move as a “security threat,” a hint that the real motive was their alleged connection with Hezbollah.

 

According to Iranian Public Television (IRIB), as much as 4000 Shiite Muslims have been deported from the UAE over the past 4 years, even though many of these Lebanese have been residing in the UAE for over two decades. As the deportations reportedly continued, debates were triggered on Shiite forums, and many users accuse the authorities in the UAE of indiscriminately expelling Lebanese Shiites and confiscating their businesses and assets.

 

Hezbollah’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been on the edge, depending on the Iranian-Saudi regional rivalry. Similarly, Kuwait has been wary of Iran and Hezbollah’s interests after their failed assassination attempt on the emir in 1983. Since then, Kuwaiti officials have constantly hunted and arrested alleged spy rings.

 

Oman, which lies just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, has surprisingly good relations with Tehran, the West, and Gulf states. Oman has kept quiet on Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and the country hasn’t criticized Iranian interference either. At the same time, Oman has taken up the role of a mediator, spending significant resources on bailing out American hikers arrested in Iran, and negotiating for the release of British sailors taken hostage by Tehran.

 

“Listing Hezbollah as a terrorist [organization] will do no harm to Hezbollah, but it will harm the Gulf countries that should be aware that Hezbollah is an important actor on the political scene in Lebanon,” Kassir said.

 

Ali al-Amin, a political analyst for al-Balad and commentator on Shiite community affairs, stressed Hezbollah’s importance in local politics. “The Gulf countries know exactly the importance of Hezbollah on the Lebanese political scene. The UAE is treating the Shiites there as if they are listed as terrorists. The official statement will change nothing, they will keep on expelling people and stalking them, and treating them as terrorists,” al-Amin reiterated.

 

Levitt, however, does not believe it is Hezbollah’s political role in Lebanon that keeps the Gulf countries from listing it as a terrorist organization. “They are hesitant on this account only because they are concerned about retaliation. Hezbollah has a long history of activities in the region dating back to bombings, as well as the attempted assassination of the Kuwaiti emir in the 1980s,” Levitt stressed.

byAna Maria Luca

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609.

 

Yara Chehayed contributed with translation.