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    Middle East
     Apr 15, 2011

EU in a bind over Bahrain
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The European Union this week moved with alacrity and unity to punish Iranian officials over the country's human-rights record, yet the 27-nation bloc is having difficulty in deciding what action to take over Bahrain. There, the ruling sheikhs have brutally suppressed a pro-democracy movement with the help of Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates, apparently with the tacit consent of the White House.

The EU on Tuesday moved to freeze the assets and place travel bans on 32 Iranian officials for alleged human-rights violations. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the EU wanted to

hit back at the "appalling human-rights record of Iran", and cited the jailing of Iranian opposition leaders, the detention of journalists and an excessive use of the death penalty. The list of names will soon be made public.

With respect to Bahrain, the EU is clearly at a critical crossroads - of inaction born by political expediency and a principled firm response in line with its values. More than two dozen people have been killed by security forces since the government declared martial law March 15, while more than 400 others have been arrested or are otherwise unaccounted for, according to international rights groups.

On Monday, Zsolt Nemeth, Hungry's deputy foreign minister, spoke on behalf of the EU when raising the specter of Western military intervention in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, stating clearly that this was a distinct possibility unless those regimes cleaned up their acts.

Such stern warnings from Europe to repressive Arab rulers certainly have a unique and unprecedented clout that cannot be ignored by other Arab regimes contested by their own population. The problem, however, is consistency and the will to actually take action, particularly with respect to Yemen and Bahrain, the latter is home to the home to the US Fifth Fleet. This is partly the result of the US's double-standard of talking democracy to the world and yet doing nothing to promote or protect it whenever its strategic interests are at stake.

There is, however, a noticeable policy gap between the US and Europe, which may introduce some serious dents in their trans-Atlantic relations depending on developments on the ground in various parts of the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf, home to US hegemony for more than 60 years.

A clue to the latter can be found in the contrasting positions of the US and the EU on the popular unrest in Bahrain, where the Saudis have militarily intervened to quell the protests of March 14, although the US has refused to either brand it as an "occupation" or condemn it.

Instead of backing pro-democracy words with action, Washington under President Barack Obama's watch has not only turned a blind eye to the brutal suppression of Shi'ite-led mass protests, it has also tilted in favor of the ossified ruling families of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who in their last communique accused Iran of complicity in the Bahrain unrest.

Thus, as a result of massive Saudi lobbying efforts in Washington, the US government, which only a month ago explicitly saw no evidence of Iranian complicity in Bahrain, has now reversed itself and claims that "we already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain", to quote US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during his April 7 visit to the region.

Four weeks earlier, Gates, while visiting Bahrain, sounded remarkably different, stating categorically that there was no evidence of Iranian complicity behind the Bahrain unrest. One month in an international crisis can be a long time and Gates sudden conversion to the Saudi and Bahraini political narrative of pointing the fingers at the Iranians clearly needs some explaining.

Not so with the European Union, thanks to its more heterogeneous political nature that stands in sharp contrast to the often moribund political uniformity characterizing the American scene. The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, can now be heard questioning the Iran-phobic Bahraini rationalizations for their repression of the mostly Shi'ite protesters. She is relying on her foreign policy team to convey a different accent than the Americans, by directly raising the prospect of tough action on the repressive regimes in Bahrain, Yemen and even Syria.

For sure, there are too many dissenting voices in the EU to allow Ashton's threat to culminate in concrete action, save some symbolic moves such as travel bans on specific officials. Still, even such token bravery would be a welcome step forward compared to the US inaction that, in effect, translates into tacit support for the repression in Bahrain.

The EU prides itself on a wealth of conflict-mediation roles, now it is slowly positioning itself to play a more direct mediation role in the political crises in Bahrain and Yemen. But the important question is, to what extent will this be tolerated by the US, which considers Bahrain a piece of its own turf not to be disturbed by any democratic rumblings?

Put simply, inaction is not an option, short of damaging the EU's reputation, and EU officials will have to chart difficult terrain in pushing for the gradual modernization of Bahrain, one calculated to culminate in greater economic opportunity as well as equal rights to the largely disenfranchised Shi'ites. Otherwise, the deteriorating situation between the government and its internal opponents may turn more violent, with the latter resorting to arms to fight for their rights.

In that event, the opposition could count on the natural sympathy of not only the Iranians but also Iraqi and Lebanese Shi'ites: the hard power of repression often provokes its own mirror-image in the opposition that, although lacking internal unity, is still capable of fighting back.

If the EU does play a constructive role in Bahrain, principally through mediation and not just "empty rhetoric", this will have positive side-effects, including the appreciation of the Iranians, who are most upset over the Saudi-backed government repression in Bahrain. In turn, this could improve Iran-EU ties and thus accelerate the momentum for a solution to the Iran nuclear crisis.

But if the EU continues to dilly-dally with occasional but ultimately inconsistent and ineffectual criticisms of repressive rulers in Bahrain and Yemen, then it is a sure bet that the gulf between Iran and the EU will grow.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

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