Iran, Human Rights, and the US-Bahrain Arms Deal

By Matthew Sugrue – In an effort to contain Iran, U.S. policy makers have decided to move forward with some elements of a previously frozen arms sale to Bahrain.

According to the Financial Times, Washington will sell “air-to-air missiles, components for F-16 fighter jets and potentially a naval frigate” to the small Arab nation, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet. In light of a violent government crackdown on popular revolts last spring and ongoing allegations of further abuse, the transaction will not include equipment that could be readily used for crowd control, including “humvees, TOW missiles, tear gas, stun grenades, small arms and ammunition.”

In a May 11 statement, the U.S. State Department announced:

We are concerned about excessive use of force and tear gas by [the Bahraini] police. At the same time, we are concerned by the almost daily use of violence by some protestors. We urge all sides to work together to end the violence and refrain from incitement of any kind, including attacks on peaceful protestors or on the Bahraini police.

It is commendable that the United States is not selling weapons systems that can, and probably would, be used by the Bahraini government against its people. However, the U.S. State Department release is weak in condemning the actions of Manama in crushing the protest movement.

It has been suggested that recent progress on the arms sale is part of an effort to bolster the political position of the reformist-minded Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. Unfortunately, these measures do not go far enough for those interested in promoting human rights in the region. “It’s a direct message [from the U.S.] that we support the authorities and we don’t support democracy in Bahrain, we don’t support protesters in Bahrain,” said Bahraini activist Mohammed Al Maskati to the Christian Science Monitor.

The U.S.-Bahrain arms sale is part of a wider U.S. strategy to contain Iran. In 2010, the United States moved forward with a controversial $60 billion sale of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, despite its own terrible human rights record. It is difficult not to consider the Bahrain sale in light of recent news on the possible delisting of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MeK) from the U.S. State Department’s terrorism list.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on the activity surrounding the MeK stated that “a judge ordered the State Department to review the MeK’s status nearly two years ago, and congressional rules maintain the process should take only 180 days.” The timing of the MeK’s delisting could easily be seen as designed to provide a one-two punch to Iran; removing sanctions from a hostile group and arming a hostile government.

Unfortunately, both actions provide Iran with justification for being non-committal in the upcoming talks regarding its nuclear program. It is in the strategic interest of theUnited States that the talks produce a working agreement for a continued dialogue around Iran’s nuclear program.

It is wise for the United States to adopt containment as a strategy against Iran and refrain from direct military action, but Washington should also be careful not to find itself on the wrong side of self determination, its own ideals, and its own best rational interests.

Matthew Sugrue is a Senior Coordinator for Organizational Advancement at NAFSA: Association of International Educators. He previously served at the Arms Control Association and the National Iranian American Council.