This article is simulatenously published in Foreign Policy In Focus, Foreign Policy Journal, American Chronicle and On Line Opinion.
The popular uprising in Bahrain has put U.S. foreign policy makers in an awkward position. The U.S. 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 to 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, much less slightly criticizing, Saudi Arabia for its military intervention in Bahrain and why he sufficed with only a soft criticism of the Bahraini regime’s crackdown on its pro-democracy movement. This posture has further undermined the image of the U.S. in the eyes of the Middle Eastern publics, due to its perceived double standards towards regional political developments, and is likely to work to the detriment of U.S. strategic interests in the region in the long run.
In recent weeks, some commentators and political analysts have questioned the rationale behind the current U.S. policy towards political developments in Bahrain by arguing that the popular uprising in Bahrain has nothing to do with Iran and that the Iranian government has actually 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 U.S. fears that any new democratic government in that tiny 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 Iraq which led to the political empowerment of Shiites and Kurds bears witness to the fact that Iran is likely to benefit form 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 also 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 U.S. government does not need to buy into the claim that Iran will end up to be the loser of the Arab Spring in order to recognize that its current policy towards the region, especially in regard to the popular uprising in Bahrain, is untenable. The U.S. policy towards Bahrain is unjustified for the simpler but more fundamental reason that it does not need to define its national interests in opposition to Iran in all contexts.
Defining Iran-U.S. relations as a zero-sum game in all issue areas would afflict the U.S. foreign policy by limiting its room for maneuver. The fact that every gain for Iran in its foreign policy does not necessarily translate into a loss for the United States seems to not factor prominently into the calculations of U.S. foreign policy makers with regard to the recent political developments in the Arab world . It would of course be brazenly naïve to deny the fact that the United States and Iran are currently serious rivals in the region and have conflicts of interests in a number of important issue areas, most notably 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 United States Iran in the recent past, where the strategic interests of both countries converged. A notable example is the temporary working relationship that developed between the two countries in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following the tragedy of 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 former U.S. president George Bush branded Iran as a part of the “Axis of Evil”, 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 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 United States in that country in light of its geographical proximity and traditional influence 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 United States 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 United States. Both countries have clearly 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.
That being said, neither the United States nor Iran are yet prepared for any open bilateral diplomatic engagement with a view to redressing 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 during 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 that 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 U.S. policy towards political developments in the region has created unnecessary 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 U.S. support for the Saudi regime and its refusal to apply any substantive pressure on the Bahraini regime will further harm U.S. credibility and long-term interests in the region by placing it on the wrong side of the unfolding history in the region.