Red Scare in Pearl Square

Fears of an Iranian takeover in Bahrain resemble some of the worst paranoia from the Cold War.


For those too young to remember the hot intensity of the Cold War, the mentality of looking for "Reds under the bed" must seem quaint, if not prehistoric. Even so, those fears were real: The Soviet Union really was trying to stir up trouble for the United States, causing overzealous U.S. officials to sniff the air for the whiff of communism at home or abroad.

In the mid-1980s, I was researching anti-apartheid legislation for Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), and was continually questioned by other Capitol Hill staffers about possible Soviet links to the pro-democracy movement in South Africa. Was Bishop Desmond Tutu an unwitting Politburo puppet? Did the Kremlin secretly fund the democracy activists? That guy Mandela… if he’s in jail, he must have done something, right?

Such a simplistic mindset would seem vaguely amusing if it were not reappearing in the context of Bahrain, where the United States appears to be running scared of an alleged Iranian hand in the democracy protests of this year. An Oct. 6 Wall Street Journal op-ed warns darkly about Iranian "machinations," arguing that the protest movement represents a covert attempt to transform the island kingdom into Iran’s 14th province. The U.S. government, perhaps taking its cue from such rhetoric, is now planning to send $53 million worth of Humvees and missiles to the volatile Bahraini dictatorship, although a joint resolution has been introduced in the U.S. Congress to stop the sale.

As the smallest country in the Middle East, Bahrain sits between the regional superpowers of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Its Shiite-majority population is ruled by a Sunni monarchy and Sunni elite. Bahrain’s parliament has few powers, and gerrymandering districts to limit Shiite representation is common practice. When calls for constitutional reforms re-emerged in February, as part of the Arab Spring, they were met with a violent government crackdown that has resulted in the deaths of dozens and the imprisonment of around 1,500 more, many of whom reported a pattern of systematic torture. Dozens of medics have also been targeted — many told me they were arrested and tortured because they treated injured protesters, and confirmed to international media that live ammunition was being used against the demonstrators.

The United States, which bases the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, has reacted nervously and timidly to these abuses. Despite credible reports that the Bahrain military has shot protestors and tortured detainees, President Barack Obama lunched with Bahrain’s king during the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly last month, and the Pentagon is still pushing the arms sale.

Exploiting real concerns about Iran’s influence in the region, Bahrain’s government insists that a conspiracy led by Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, is behind Bahraini citizens’ calls for reform — a claim that echoes South African President P.W. Botha’s apartheid government’s claim that democracy activists in his country were coordinated by Peking or Moscow. In that case, officials pointed to Pravda‘s delight at carrying reports of unrest in the country as proof of their conspiracy theory, just as Bahraini rulers now cite the Iranian-funded Press TV’s coverage of the democracy protests as evidence of a conspiracy with the democracy activists.

Some U.S. officials now say that Iran might not have instigated the pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain, but it’s waiting for an opportunity to exploit them. That sounds eerily and depressingly like what used to pass, 26 years ago, as sophisticated analysis about the relationship between South African democracy activists and the Soviet Union.

That argument was nonsense then, and it is nonsense now. Unfortunately, key parts of the U.S. government still don’t get it — and are letting conspiracy theories dictate their response to the unrest in Bahrain. If there were concrete evidence of Tehran being the primary instigator of the protests in Bahrain, it would have been revealed by now. And for the record, no such evidence has been produced.

I’m not naïve. Does Iran enjoy Bahrain’s difficulties and would it like to get involved in making them worse? Probably. But that doesn’t mean it created the legitimate grievances of the Bahraini opposition. Blaming mysterious outside forces for protests against autocratic rule is par for the course in the region — look at President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, for example — but it dangerously discounts the gross inequality, injustice and absence of representative government that underlie Bahrain’s problems.

The wide range of democracy activists I’ve met on recent trips to Bahrain are too savvy to get involved with Iran. They say they don‘t want to swap one dictatorship for another, and are eager to distance themselves from the contamination that would come with association with Tehran. I saw no evidence of Iranian influence in Shiite neighborhoods, no pro-Iran graffiti, no Hezbollah flags or posters of Khamenei, Khomeini, or Ahmadinejad.

In fact, many pro-democracy activists were educated in Britain or the United States. One of the dozens of doctors and nurses detained for months and sentenced by a Bahraini military court for helping injured protestors is Roula al-Saffar. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison after the court refused to hear evidence that her confession had been extracted under torture. Roula studied at universities in the United States and for years worked as a nurse at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. She wasn’t involved in a conspiracy masterminded by Hezbollah or the Iranians. She was just adding her voice to the hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis who were calling for reform.

The United States owes it to Roula, and to all who are struggling for democracy in Bahrain, to rethink its policy toward the country. What slowed real progress to democracy in South Africa was its government’s ability to prey on U.S. fears that simple calls for reform were, in fact, a front for a Marxist takeover. U.S. credibility suffered when American policymakers refused to back the good guys until very late — and Washington has had to answer questions from resentful South Africans about why it took so long to live up to its own ideals of democracy and human rights for years since.

Now, like then, the United States excused itself from taking a stand in the interests of "regional stability."

Now, like then, the best way to ensure real stability is to publicly support a process of genuine democratic reform and not to get distracted or spooked by conspiracies that don’t exist.

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