NEW YORK — Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, welcomes a trend toward normalization between the United States and Iran, but has not yet seen a substantial shift in Iran’s policy toward Bahrain.
“We’ve seen some change, not a total change,” Sheikh Khalid told Al-Monitor on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. “We have heard that they wanted to turn a new page in the region, but when it came to Bahrain, some of the old language still lingers.”
Sheikh Khalid is referring to Iran’s position under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to reference Bahrain along with Syria, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did in his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 24.
“We defend peace based on democracy and the ballot box everywhere, including in Syria, Bahrain and other countries in the region, and believe that there are no violent solutions to world crises,” Rouhani said in his speech.
That is a “non-starter,” said Sheikh Khalid.
Bahrain’s foreign minister met briefly with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in New York and acknowledged some “good language privately in a nice way that they will work towards amending the relationship with Bahrain,” but is awaiting “real actions” by Iran to show a change in its approach.
“We would like to see clearer Iranian support for the dialogue going on in Bahrain,” said Sheikh Khalid, who added that Iran could also send a positive signal by re-appointing an Iranian ambassador to Bahrain.
Bahrain, with a population that's 70% Shia, experienced protests in February 2011 during what was known as the Arab Spring. The kingdom, with the assistance of troops from Saudi Arabia, put down the demonstrations with force and a wave of arrests. King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa later that year instituted a national dialogue between the government and opposition parties to work on reforms.
Sheikh Khalid, who has been foreign minister since 2005, said the national dialogue is “there to stay” and reflects a serious commitment by King Hamad. Acknowledging that such dialogues often take time, Sheikh Khalid pointed to positive developments as well.
“They have agreed a couple of weeks ago on a set of principles governing the dialogue for the future, which is a good step,” he said.
Sheikh Khalid said that the government wants to see a “serious commitment in representation” by the opposition parties, to match the commitment of the government.
“King Hamad has appointed three ministers, and there also members of the elected Shura council. These are parliamentarians,” he said.
The opposition, on the other hand, has “representatives who have no ability to take any decisions,” which has slowed the dialogue process, according to Sheikh Khalid.
Sheikh Khalid, like many delegates at the UN General Assembly, noted the whirlwind developments in US-Iran relations, including the telephone call between Rouhani and US President Barack Obama on Sept. 27.
A warming in US-Iran relations could be “helpful and beneficial to the rest of the region,” he said, and the regional countries should not be left out of this change.
Sheikh Khalid, who attended college in Texas and was a volunteer for President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign, said, “when the events took place in Syria in 2011, the main aim of the government of Bahrain was to protect Bahrain from the sectarian influence going on in the region."
“In order to protect our society over the decades from the influence of sectarianism, we had to take certain measures to bring things back to normal. When we did that, we did not want to slide down to where Syria is today. Or even Iraq,” he said.
Bahrain has been long time proponent of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and supports the agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
While Sheikh Khaled said he does not believe the fighting in Syria will necessarily lead to the country’s fragmentation, he worries that the conflict could go on for some time. “We would like to get to Geneva II as soon as possible, but we want to get to a successful, meaningful Geneva II that would be key to a solution to the Syria crisis.”
Political reconciliation in Syria, he said, “may take a much longer time and that also is more of a responsibility of the local and internal players.”
He said that there is no official policy in Bahrain or the region to support the flow of extremists to fight in Syria. “Extremists can be anywhere,” said Sheikh Khalid. “They can board a plane and go to a nearby country and sneak through the borders.”
Bahrain’s policy is to prevent its citizens from getting involved in the fighting in Syria or anywhere else. “We want to protect our young men,” said Sheikh Khalid.
Bahrain, which presently chairs the Gulf Cooperation Council, will be hosting the annual GCC-Russia strategic dialogue in Manama in November. Sheikh Khalid expects the conversation to focus on Syria, as it did exclusively last year in Riyadh. The strategic dialogue could be an opportunity for the GCC and Russia to help advance a resolution to the situation in Syria.
“We may have a difference on how things are to be handles in Syria, but that doesn’t mean that we have disputes with Russia that will stop us from talking to Russia and maintaining our relationship with Russia,” Sheikh Khalid said.
Andrew Parasiliti is editor and CEO of Al-Monitor.