Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bahrain's Crown Prince Makes His Move—And It Might Just Work

I have a new article out at Foreign Policy on the crown prince's recent intervention in the national dialogue. More than that, though, it is about the larger political maneuver (in my view at least) being attempted by Sh. Salman vis-a-vis his royal challengers.

Update: Lost in all the attention on Sh. Salman's meeting with 'Ali Salman is a recent statement (characterized by some as a "fatwa," though I'm not sure that's correct) by Sh. 'Isa Qasim declaring that "terrorism is forbidden in Islam." According to an English translation carried in the Iranian ABNA, he said, among other things, "This is our clear and persistent word to all believers; no to terrorism. Nothing other than a nonviolent approach must be adopted while demanding reforms."

Of course, the sorts of people over whom 'Isa Qassim has religious sway are not necessarily the same individuals engaging in violent acts.  The message is probably more important for (and addressed to) the government and its Sunni support base, which continues to demand an explicit denunciation of violence from al-Wifaq, and to question why the state would agree to negotiate with "terrorists."  Thus, for instance, we have this photoshop, which would seem to summarize the opinion of the latter:
Update 2: Simon Henderson scours Robert Gates' new memoir for interesting bits on royal factionalism in Bahrain, which unfortunately seem to be relatively few. Mainly we are told what we already know, to wit:
The book recalls a February 2011 conversation in which Crown Prince Salman said "he was ready to become prime minister if asked." Yet despite describing him as "the voice of reason," Gates noted that Salman "was powerless" at the time. When visiting the island a month later, Gates "suggested to both the crown prince and king that they find a new and different role for the prime minister, who was disliked by nearly everyone but especially the Shia." Although Salman and the king responded positively to his suggestions, Gates concluded that "the royal family was split, and the hardliners had the edge."
Update 3: A pessimistic view from the BBC on the Crown Price's initiative, focusing in particular on the paradoxical role of Khalid bin Ahmad. This is in line with a notable Bahrain Mirror story that describes the first opposition meeting with the Royal Court Minister as follows: "cold, negative, and [Khalid bin Ahmad] has snatched leadership of the dialogue."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Crown Prince Negotiates with Terrorists

A dramatic change indeed from the recent unprecedented persecution of senior al-Wifaq leaders, with 'Ali Salman himself arrested but two weeks ago for supposed incitement to terrorism and hatred of the regime, yesterday saw a surprise meeting between Crown Prince Salman and political society leaders aimed at jump-starting the now-suspended national dialogue.

Of course, the question has never really been Sh. Salman's desire or sincerity in making a deal, but his practical ability to do so given ruling family dynamics. Perhaps the coming of 2014 -- an election year in Bahrain -- has given the government a renewed sense that the clock is ticking. Time will tell.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Truthiness in (and on) Bahrain

Today, no matter who you are, I've got good news for you. If you're one of those types of people who enjoys reading objective assessments of important social and political phenomena by people who have some knowledge of them, then you'll be happy to hear that Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf, a volume to which I contributed and about which I've been talking for a year now, will finally, after some delay, be out this Friday. (Fred Wehrey's book on the same topic -- and bearing almost the exact same title -- has also recently been published.)  In addition to my theoretical introduction, there are chapters by Laurence Louër, Kristin Smith Diwan, J.E. Peterson, Marc Valeri, and others.

On the other hand, if you're the kind of guy (or gal) who gets a kick out of blatant propaganda and/or subtle, agenda-driven changes in language and interpretation that are eventually adopted uncritically by influential media outlets like the New York Times, then you also should read on.

For the former, we have none other than Sh. Khalifa bin Salman himself, who yesterday received a group of pro-government Twitter-ers to thank them for their effective "exploit[ation] of modern technology to first and foremost defend Bahrain" -- as opposed to, say, "first and foremost tell the truth about Bahrain." The GDN reports that he "stressed the need to counter campaigns defaming Bahrain's reform project and fledgling democratic strides. 'Confront anyone tweeting to harm Bahrain and lay bare all those who sold their souls to foreign parties,'" he said. This comes, one imagines, after last week's surprising decision by South Korea not to sell tear gas to Bahrain, an opposition victory owing largely to an effective social media campaign.

Already the day before, Bahrain had established a new "anti-hate speech" committee (announced at a cabinet meeting chaired by the prime minister), charged with "proposing and adopting policies and measures, as well as preparing effective programmes, that address the problem of hate speech."  Presumably this will follow the lead of Bahrain's nebulous anti-terrorism law of 2006, which defines terrorism as any oppositional act.

Yet, more worrying than Khalifa bin Salman's personal Internet army and hate-speech mutawwa'in is a more subtle question of language noted in a recent article by Jim Lobe (which also features extended commentary by Emile Nakhleh).  The issue concerns an article featured prominently in Sunday's New York Times about the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.  In it, the authors seem to regurgitate various unsubstantiated claims of "proof" of Iranian interference in Bahrain cited by Elliot Abrams in a recent post at CFR. The upshot is that Bahrain now appears in the article alongside Syria and Yemen as veritable, established cases of Iranian interference in the Middle East, using as primary evidence the recent Caper of the Smoking Gun Boats, which as Lobe notes has not received serious treatment except by Abrams (and of course the indomitable Mitch Belfer).

Yet here the New York Times reports the Ministry of Interior's claims as fact:
In Bahrain, where Iran has ties to several Shiite groups, including some that have carried out small-scale attacks on the police, security officials last week seized a ship headed for the country with 50 Iranian-made hand grenades and nearly 300 commercial detonators marked “made in Syria.”

The two Bahrainis captured told interrogators that they had been trained in Iran and were directed by Bahraini opposition figures based there.

The country’s public security chief, Tareq al-Hassan, said that information provided by the suspects had also led to the seizure of plastic explosives, detonators, bombs, automatic rifles and ammunition in a warehouse.
Nakhleh addresses some obvious problems in a reply to Lobe, writing,
The veracity of the NYT report on Bahrain is questionable. The two reporters should know better and should have been more nuanced. Perhaps their report was a nod to some hardliners in Washington who oppose any deal with Iran on the nuclear program. I am afraid the Gordon/Schmitt report might give the impression the NYT is falling in the same neocon-Israeli trap about Iran. ...

The weapons were seized on a boat, not a “ship” as the Times has claimed. They could have come from a location on the Iranian coast or from any other place in the northern Persian Gulf or the Shatt al-Arab estuary. We should be very careful lest we are duped by information or intelligence, which the Bahraini security services might have obtained through “interrogations” of the people arrested on the boat. It’s disappointing the Times did not take a more strategic look at Iranian-Bahraini relations and published, as fact, a claim about Iranian weapons heading toward Bahrain.
Ironically, then, the most informed and balanced coverage of Bahrain in the major Western media last week came on a fake news program, as Stephen Colbert hosted Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch. See if you can spot Roth's old-fashioned use of facts and evidence in the linked video.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Bahrain's Smoking Gun (Boat)

For the last three years, the Government of Bahrain has expended no little energy attempting to convince international observers that opposition activists driving political unrest are doing so, not for any desire for democratic reform, but at the behest of Iran and its regional ambitions. Indeed, such was the message of King Hamad's April 2011 apologia in the Washington Times: that the state's crackdown was necessary because "the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region."

Unfortunately for King Hamad, few governments outside the Gulf were convinced by his argument, and though Bahrain claimed to have tangible evidence of such Iranian subversion and support for Bahrain's increasingly violent informal opposition, it ostensibly refused to divulge it for reasons of national security. Yet, given that Bahrain's national security is a direct function of Western, primarily U.S., military support, such a response was taken to mean that Bahrain in fact had no convincing evidence.  In the absence of a "smoking gun," then, the resulting dialectic -- Bahrain crying Iranian wolf, the State Department acknowledging its ally's concerns without actually validating them -- has persisted more or less until today.

Consider, for instance, the recent words of Elliot Abrams, who wrote only a week ago to some fanfare,
I am fully aware that there is a deep fear of Iranian subversion in Bahrain, and that some acts of protest can cross the line into actual criminal behavior – in Bahrain as everywhere. But if the government of Bahrain cannot distinguish between genuine protest and foreign subversion, and responds to criticism with jail sentences, one can only expect that 2014 will be even worse than 2013 for human rights and domestic stability.
What Bahrain needed, then, to say it again, was a smoking gun -- to catch Iran red-handed in some act of subterfuge, preferably in association with (Shi'a) Bahraini citizens, that would finally "open the eyes" of its faithless and gullible Western patrons.

Well, at least from the standpoint of the Bahraini government, that day has come.  On Monday, Bahrain claimed to have foiled simultaneously around 34 terrorist activities involving not only Iran but individuals from every Shi'a-majority country on Earth.  As I understand it, the initial operation involved the capture of two separate boats, one located and followed as it approached from "118 nautical miles off north eastern Bahrain, in international waters" [i.e., from Iran, by implication] to the Shi'a village of Karranah. The Gulf News summarizes,
[I]t was seized at 4.50 pm, around two nautical miles away from the coast of the Karranah village. The target was a 29-foot boat with two 200 horsepower engines. Two Bahrainis were on board. ...

The police seized 38 C4 explosives, 31 Claymore blocks, explosive material to be used against individuals, 12 EFP armour-piercing explosives, six explosive devices containing magnets, 30 Nokia mobile phones, with batteries, a Thuraya satellite phone with a SIM card, and 29 circuit boards to be fixed on mobile phones to set off bombs.

The Coast Guard also seized a PK machine gun and 12 cartridges, a large number of machine gun bullets, two boxes containing a large number of ignition capsules, three explosive fuses, 50 Iranian-made hand bombs, 295 “made in Syria” commercial detonators and C4 and TNT explosives.
Apparently, two of those arrested "spoke the Iraqi dialect."

On the very same day, the coast guard also apparently stopped an outgoing boat, again from Karranah, smuggling 13 terrorist "fugitives," including a Saudi national, to Iran for training by the Revolutionary Guard. The BNA tells that "The accused confessed that they had joined the group to ... commit terrorist acts with religious motivations from their points of view."

Separately, police say they busted a weapons warehouse in al-Qurrayah south of Bani Jamra, and also defused a "car bomb" in Manama.  (For even more details, see this lengthy Thursday press conference with Tariq al-Hasan.)

Indeed, the state's success was so great that it even prompted a patented Al-Watan terrorist network flowchart, which is when you know you're definitely dealing with some serious terrorist shit. This particular flowchart identifies 10 individuals, including a top tier of "leaders" said to reside in Iran or Iraq.  Interestingly, included in the descriptions are individuals' employment details.  Many are reported to work in the public sector.  Presumably the message is something like, "Look, the state provides their livelihoods, yet they collaborate with foreign governments."

As always, it's difficult to know what to make of this.  It seems odd that a group trained by Iran's most elite paramilitary force would attempt to sail into Karranah in the middle of the afternoon -- rather than, say, at night -- and, further tempting fate, launch another even more conspicuous vessel in the opposite direction just as the other was set to arrive.  On the other hand, it's not unthinkable that there should be some attempt to smuggle arms into the country and fugitives out of it, so it would be silly to dismiss the episode entirely.

It must be said, however, that Bahrain's seeming breakthrough after three years of (one assumes) hunting for substantive evidence of Iranian involvement with the opposition comes at a very opportune time for it -- and, notably, for critics of the Iranian nuclear deal everywhere.  Not only does it help Bahrain make its increasingly sweeping legal and diplomatic case against opposition activists -- including, by association, members of the formal opposition like 'Ali Salman -- but it proves that Iran is negotiating in bad faith by continuing its interference in Arab Gulf affairs while claiming to want peace and international cooperation.

Thus, for instance, Elliott Abrams, whose tone has changed markedly from his criticism of King Hamad a week ago. Bahrain's newest terrorist discovery proves that "Iran continues subversion despite the nuclear negotiations." He asks, "Is this just propaganda from the Government of Bahrain? No; I’ve checked with US authorities and these reports are accurate."

Not convinced?  Well, he's also checked with Mitchell Belfer, whose definitely-not-propaganda piece "The 'Who' and the 'Why' of the Plotted New Year’s Eve Massacre in Bahrain" authoritatively confirms Abrams' vague anonymous sources. (Honestly, at this point Bahrain ought to pay Belfer not to write.)

I'll end by noting one additional item, which beyond a tweet by Toby Matthiesen seems not to have garnered much attention.  In an otherwise ordinary "looking forward to 2014" sort of article earlier this week, Reuters offered previously-unreported details of the mysterious July 17  "car bomb" in Riffa.  Though it caused no injuries (and indeed detonated at a time when no one was present), Reuters describes how the incident sabotaged nascent talks between the opposition and Crown Prince Salman:
While the two sides remained apart on many big issues, the talks began and some sort of deal appeared possible.

Then, on July 17, a car bomb exploded in a carpark outside the Sheikh Isa bin Salman Sunni mosque in Riffa, an area where many members of the ruling family and armed forces live.

There were no casualties. But the blast undermined the Crown Prince's efforts to push political and economic reforms, instead strengthening hawks inside the Al Khalifa family who see Shi'ite protests as a threat.

"The Crown Prince was hunkered down. He has to be seen to be tough," said one Western diplomat. "Since then it has been hard going."
Update: Hello, Mitch Belfer! Please share your insights.

Update 2: One thing that won't be smoking in Bahrain is South Korean-made tear gas. Citing "unstable politics in the country [Bahrain], people’s death due to tear gas, and complaints from human rights groups," South Korea has joined the United States and Britain in halting sales. This appears to be a relatively rare if welcome success by Bahrain Watch and other campaigners to change the behavior of Bahrain's economic and political partners. Bahrain's choice of tear gas supplier now is limited to the mere dozens of arms exporting nations unconcerned by such human rights trivialities.