The popular uprising in Bahrain has put US foreign policy makers in an awkward position. The US government has largely lent its diplomatic weight to the Saudi regime in stifling popular uprising in Bahrain for fear that any democratic transformation in that country would work in Iran’s advantage, thus undermining its own interests in the Persian Gulf region. This explains why President Obama refrained in his recent address on the Middle East from even mentioning or slightly criticizing Saudi Arabia for its military intervention in Bahrain and abetting the Bahraini regime in the violent suppression of popular protests there, and also why he sufficed with only a soft criticism of the Bahraini regime’s crackdown on the pro-democracy movement there. This posture has further undermined the image of the US before the Middle Eastern public due to its perceived double standards towards regional political developments, and it is likely to work to the detriment of US strategic interests in the region in the long run.
In recent weeks, some commentators and political analysts have questioned the rationale behind the current US policy towards political developments in Bahrain by arguing that the popular uprising in Bahrain has actually nothing to do with Iran, and that the Iranian government has a lot to lose in the long run from a democratic government in Bahrain. Others have also played down the sectarian nature of the popular uprising in Bahrain, thus allaying the US fears that any new democratic government in that island would ally itself with Iran.
While it is true that the Arab popular uprisings, including the one in Bahrain, are not primarily motivated by sectarian identities and that they are home-grown and independent social movements without any ties to Iran, it can hardly be disputed that Iran will benefit from the fall of conservative authoritarian Arab regimes in both Shiite and Sunni majority states in the region. The experience of the democratic transformation in the post-conflict Iraq which led to the political empowerment of Shiites and Kurds in that country, bears witness to the fact that Iran is likely to benefit from the outcome of such political upheavals. Similarly, any democratic and popularly-based political system in Bahrain is expected to exhibit some gravitation toward Iran, given the common religious bonds between the two nations, and in part as a symbolic gesture to mark a break with the foreign policy of the previous tyrannical regime, as witnessed in the case of post-Mubarak Egypt.
But the US government does not need to buy into the claim that Iran will end up the loser of the Arab Spring in order to recognize that its current policy towards the region, especially with regard to the popular uprising in Bahrain, is untenable. The US policy towards Bahrain is unjustified for the simple but more fundamental reason that it does not need to define its national interests in opposition to Iran under all circumstances and in all contexts.
Defining Iran-US relations as a zero-sum game in all issue areas and in all situations would afflict the US foreign policy with a sort of rigidity that would limit its room for maneuver. The fact that every gain for Iran in its foreign policy does not necessarily translate into a loss for the US seems to not factor prominently into the calculations of US foreign policy makers with regard to the recent political developments in the Arab world of the Middle East. It would of course be brazenly naïve to deny the fact that the US and Iran are currently serious rivals in the region and have conflicts of interests in a number of important issue areas, most important of which is Iran’s nuclear program, and that it would take extreme compromise by both parties to reconcile these differences under present conditions. But this does not mean that they cannot be tacit partners and have convergent interests in a number of other issue areas.
While not officially recognized and applied in other similar circumstances, there are practical cases of partnership between the US and Iran, where the strategic interests of both countries have converged in the recent past. A notable example is the temporary working relationship that developed between the two countries in the months leading up to the US invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the tragic event of the September 11th. Both countries coordinated their actions through multilateral settings under the UN and benefited from toppling their common adversary in Afghanistan. Although that brief formal cooperation between the two countries over Afghanistan soon dissipated after the former US president George Bush branded Iran as a part of the Axis of Evil rhetoric, their common interest in preventing the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has withstood the test of time and has enabled the emergence of a tacit partnership between the two countries.
The fact that Iran has ever since largely refrained from playing a spoiler’s role in Afghanistan—despite the fact that it is well capable of creating serious trouble for the US in that country in light of its geographical proximity, traditional influence and presence in Afghanistan—bears witness to the existence of such a tacit partnership between the two countries over Afghanistan. Iran’s recognition of its common interest with the US in preventing the resurgence of the Taliban has helped sustain this tacit partnership to this date.
The current political situation in Iraq also shows that any gain for Iran does not necessarily come at the expense of the US. Both countries clearly have a shared interest in preserving the status quo in Iraq. Despite occasional disputed claims of limited weapons smuggling from Iran to both Afghanistan and Iraq, with a view to helping the insurgents in those countries, there is no evidence pointing to any strategic decision on the part of Iran to undermine the status quo in those countries. In fact, all major evidence points to the contrary.
Having said this, neither the US nor Iran are yet prepared for any open bilateral diplomatic engagement with a view to addressing their own mutual ties. Yet they can coordinate their foreign policies towards regional political developments through multilateral settings or intermediaries, as in the case of their low-level diplomatic engagement over Iraq which was hosted by the Iraqi government in Baghdad under the Bush administration. At the very least, the recognition of their common interests in any relevant issue area should enable them to form tacit partnerships and avoid any paranoid reaction to any political developments in the region which turn out to benefit either party.
The current political situation in the region, instigated by the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain and the continued suppression of the public uprising by the Bahraini regime, is clearly unsustainable and has the potential to escalate to outright military confrontations in the strategic region of the Persian Gulf. The zero-sum mentality vis-à-vis Iran characterizing the current US policy towards political developments in the region has created undue costs for the foreign policies of both countries and, above all, has harmed the genuine democratic aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the Bahraini population. The unconditional US support for the Saudi regime and its refusal to apply any substantive pressure on the Bahraini regime will further harm US credibility and long-term interests in the region by placing it on the wrong side of the unfolding history in the region.