It's three years ago this month that troops from Saudi Arabia entered the island kingdom of Bahrain to help the government there crack down on protests for reform. The violent attack on protesters and the subsequent deaths and arrests by Bahraini security forces pose a test for U.S. human rights policy -- and it is a test the United States is failing.
The Bahrain regime -- a key U.S. ally in the Gulf -- has succeeded in recasting a broad-based movement for democracy into a struggle against Iranian influence. U.S. ambivalence has abetted this narrative and, unless things change, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and has been an American military ally for decades. Stability is critical to the relationship. The king's uncle has been the un-elected prime minister for over 40 years; that's one kind of stability. But when a country's jails become populated by peaceful dissidents -- including some who are there simply for tweets critical of the king -- that is a sign of instability, and should be cause for U.S. concern.
A stable, democratic Bahrain that respects the rule of law is a more reliable partner than a volatile dictatorship. The Bahraini government knows this, so it blames the movement for democratic reform on agents of Tehran, reducing the struggle for human rights to a Shia versus Sunni conflict and claiming that the rights movement has been hijacked by extremists out to establish an Islamic caliphate.
There's no doubt Iran will seek to exploit Bahrain's political chaos. But if the United States -- and the Bahraini regime -- really want to foil Iran, they should be making common cause with those who seek participatory democracy.