Bahrain is open to a new nuclear agreement with Iran, as long as such a deal addresses Iran’s missile development and regional policies, in addition to its nuclear program.
Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, spoke to Al-Monitor in an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings in New York.
“If there will be another JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] that will work, that will be acceptable and in the benefit of everyone, that will prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon, that will cover their missile weaponization program, and that will deal with Iran's mischief and Iran's destructive policy in the region — that is what we want from the new JCPOA,” he said.
Al Khalifa stressed that the tensions with Iran are the result of the "toxic" policies of the present government.
“The Islamic Republic has always been a problem,” said Al Khalifa, who has served as Bahrain’s foreign minister since 2005, “but it didn't mean that there were no windows with the Islamic Republic,” referring to periods of better relations between Iran and the Gulf states under former Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.
“Patience is strategy,” he added. “Maximum pressure on the regime in Iran is working. It is effective … but after all the latest attacks, being ready, being kind of capable of defending ourselves is the most priority, especially against drones or all the types of weapons and missiles that Iran has."
Al Khalifa was upbeat about the US-Bahrain security relationship, saying, “It has always been strong, but whenever there is a new challenge, it will grow and go into newer dimensions and horizons. And this is where we are today with this new challenge from Iran.”
“We see our interests coming together,” he noted. “We see, eye to eye, all the threats to the region, and we are committed to it. And we appreciate it from the United States.”
Bahrain has also been willing to be out front in working with the United States on Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives. Bahrain hosted the US-sponsored Peace to Prosperity workshop in June.
“We're not shy from taking our principled positions working with the United States toward achieving peace, prosperity in the Middle East,” Al Khalifa said. “Not only in the Palestinian territories and between them and Israel, but also the wider region in Jordan and Lebanon and Egypt and everywhere.”
“If [a US-brokered peace initiative] would give the Palestinians their own statehood, their own country, their own rights and aspirations, this would be very helpful,” he noted. “It will go along the same line with the Arab Peace Initiative.”
Al Khalifa rejected the use of the term blockade in reference to the policies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain against Qatar, saying that the actions of the four were defensive and more properly termed a boycott.
“We did not surround Qatar and prevent them from sending ships, receiving ships or planes or anything,” he said. “But we protected ourselves from what they are doing, which is supporting terrorists, which is trying to undermine the states around them, which is trying to plot against the states around them.”
Al Khalifa put the burden on Qatar to open a dialogue to resolve the dispute. “Do they want to discuss it? Does the emir of Qatar want to discuss the issue with his brothers or not? If he doesn't want to discuss it, then we are not going anywhere.”
The interview was conducted by Al-Monitor President Andrew Parasiliti. A lightly edited version of the transcript follows:
Al-Monitor: So, regional security in the Gulf. The United States may be sending increased numbers of personnel to the region. How do you see the situation unfolding? Obviously Bahrain is right there, not far from Iran. Tell us your view of the situation and what you think will happen next and what could and should happen next.
Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa: The situation has not changed from our perspective and from our intentions of what we want to do. The events evolving now in the region and the move by the United States to send forces and material, it's purely of defensive nature. And it's not in any way an attempt to prepare for war or to attack anyone, especially Iran.
What has been always changing is Iran's posture. They have for decades continued their policy of supporting proxies, interfering with their neighbors, undermining the stability of the countries around them, and they brought it to the most unprecedented level lately after the attack on the ships, and when they attacked the facilities in Saudi Arabia. This is unprecedented.
But we value and we commend their wisdom and the policy of the United States not to be drawn into a conflict on somebody else's terms. Maximum pressure on the regime in Iran is working. It is effective. It is causing a lot of pressure on the Iranian regime, and that's what Iran itself is trying to get out of maximum pressure. They are trying to mix up all the cards, and then they will invite the world to come and interfere and lift the sanctions. We think the sanctions are important and they are working, and nobody will go according to their term. But after all the latest attacks, being ready, being kind of capable of defending ourselves is the most priority, especially against drones or all the types of weapons and missiles that Iran has.
But, you know, eventually, we would prefer that Iran would come back to its senses, and Iran will definitely have to now abide by another JCPOA, because the JCPOA that happened before that was done by 5+1 and Iran was very — covered only one part of Iran problem, and not only one part. One part of one part, which is one part of the nuclear program that allowed them to then — it was going to expire, and then they will go back to normal in their nuclear program, which was worrying to us.
Now if there will be another JCPOA that will work, that will be acceptable and in the benefit of everyone, that will prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon, that will cover their missile weaponization program, and that will deal with Iran's mischief and Iran's destructive policy in the region — that is what we want from the new JCPOA, and it's in the interest of Iran more than anyone else.
But if they will want to continue with this policy they have, which is a very toxic one from, you know, not only from interfering through proxies, but even with their policy and with their doctrines, which is a theofascist one, and that should not continue because it's not in the interest of anyone.
Al-Monitor: President Hassan Rouhani, in his speech to the UN General Assembly, talked about a new initiative for engagement in the region. What's your assessment of what you heard from him at the UN?
Al Khalifa: Well, there are two things that Iran is proposing. One is they're proposing some kind of architecture that will bring the countries together, and this is something we don't see it working, because they always propose something similar. It didn't work. They didn't keep their word. We will not commit ourselves to that, and they're proposing something else. Also, it's something for the maritime safety for Hormuz.
We are already committed to the US construct, which is with the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Australia and more to come, New Zealand possibly coming, other countries to come. And it's also — if they look at it, it's against them, then it's their problem. We are doing it for the safety for everyone. Freedom of navigation, maritime security, safety, this is what we are committed to, and we cannot commit ourself to one and then go and think of another one that is of dubious origin.
Al-Monitor: The US-Bahrain security relationship seems as strong as ever.
Al Khalifa: As ever.
Al-Monitor: The US international security maritime construct, which you just mentioned, you host the US Naval Support Activity Bahrain Base, which is home to the US naval forces for the US Central Command.
Al Khalifa: Yes.
Al-Monitor: How do you see the relationship with the US evolving?
Al Khalifa: It always has been evolving. The security relationship has always been strong, but whenever there is a new challenge, it will grow and go into newer dimensions and horizons. And this is where we are today with this new challenge from Iran. We have the Fifth Fleet. We have the British Naval Facility next to the Fifth Fleet in Manama, and we have a combined maritime force of several countries, several countries from around the world, and we see it growing. We see our interests coming together. We see, eye to eye, all the threats to the region, and we are committed to it. And we appreciate it from the United States.
Al-Monitor: Bahrain played a key role in supporting the US-led Israeli-Palestinian Peace to Prosperity conference. You hosted it. Obviously, the details are to be known, but how do you see that evolving, and how do you see Bahrain's role? Bahrain has been very forward-leaning on this issue.
Al Khalifa: We're not shy from taking our principled positions working with the United States toward achieving peace, prosperity in the Middle East, not only in the Palestinian territories and between them and Israel, but also the wider region in Jordan and Lebanon and Egypt and everywhere.
But we know that what we have hosted in Bahrain is a workshop, an economic workshop. It's not new. This kind of initiative is not new. We always remember Salam Fayyad [former prime minister of the Palestinian Authority]. He had worked on an economic plan. John Kerry worked with — he brought Tim Collins and his plan to revive the Palestinian economy. Taro Kono, who was the former foreign minister of Japan, now defense minister, also with an Asian group, with Thailand and others, they had a group of economic help for the Palestinians. And all the past initiatives have been accepted by the Palestinian Authority.
This one, they have seen it as part of a wider deal, as they call it, or plan, although we don't see any deal that has been struck in any way. But we've accepted to host this one to do our part with our allies, the United States, and we've done it.
And regarding what's in the political side, we are yet to see it. We hope that it will be a strong one, a good one that will really be accepted by all parties. If it would give the Palestinians their own statehood, their own country, their own rights and aspirations, this would be very helpful. It will go along the same line with the Arab Peace Initiative.
Let's wait and see what's in the thinking of the US administration, and we will always support anything that we will definitely see success in it, especially with our allies, and we are always truthful with our allies when it comes to any plan they have. They trust us, and we trust them.
Al-Monitor: What about the blockade of Qatar? Has there been any diplomatic initiatives or progress on that issue? How do you see that kind of situation going? Do you see it toward resolution, more of the same, getting worse?
Al Khalifa: First of all, only Qatar uses the word "blockade." We call it "boycott." We closed our doors. We did not surround Qatar and prevent them from sending ships, receiving ships or planes or anything. They're all over the world. They attend football games in Europe and fly back. They do business. They're doing their own thing.
But we protected ourselves from what they are doing, which is supporting terrorists, which is trying to undermine the states around them, which is trying to plot against the states around them like Saudi Arabia when they plotted to assassinate the former king of Saudi Arabia, when they have hosted officers from our BDF, Bahrain Defense Force, who have left Bahrain without leaving their jobs and surfaced in Qatar, and then eventually they put them on TV talking against us. This is something even any responsible country will not accept, of taking people in active military service and letting them do the same.
If they will continue on this path and then for them to invite a foreign force into our region, which is the Turkish forces — Turkey is a country that we have a lot of relations with, but we didn't want to see them in this situation coming into an issue between countries in the GCC.
The emir of Qatar, in his speech at the UN, said the first victim of this, as he called it, "blockade" — and we never accept [that term] — is the GCC. We don't see the GCC as a victim; we see the GCC as continuing. Our secretary-general is here. Meetings are being held. Summits are going on. They would not respond to the summit that the emir would attend. Three times or four times, the king of Saudi Arabia invited them to Arab summits and GCC summits. They would send lower level.
Do they want to discuss it? Does the emir of Qatar want to discuss the issue with his brothers or not? If he doesn't want to discuss it, then we are not going anywhere. So, the GCC is there. The GCC is the same. It's not a victim, and we are — we do hold meetings. We just held a meeting between the GCC and the US two days ago here in Washington with President Trump and Secretary Pompeo. So, I don't think we should worry about the GCC.
But the issue is in the hands of Qatar to solve it. Talk to us frankly. Stop what they are doing against us, and they will then be back normally within their fold, within where they belong, and not have to deal with some other regional forces.
Al-Monitor: Do you think that the attack on Saudi Arabia might also be a catalyst for a renewed or more intensive diplomatic effort to end the war in Yemen?
Al Khalifa: Well, look, the similarity or the things that would put those two things next to each other — attack on Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen — is the Iranian problem. Iran supports one party in Yemen, which is what's part of an agreement, and then they did the coup d'etat against the state, against Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The first time I met a Houthi was in Riyadh in the GCC Secretariat, when they came as an opposition group, and we and they — the foreign minister, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi [respectively, the former president and the former foreign minister of Yemen].
The second time I saw a Houthi was also in Riyadh at the king of Saudi Arabia's palace, when Ali Abdullah Saleh abdicated. He was there. We shook his hand. So he was in. He was part of all those political groups, but they decided then to take over.
And we all know that they received a lot of money, weapons, help, and also put soldiers and people from Hezbollah helping them and experts. Iran is there in both cases, but we see our role in Yemen as very humanitarian from the beginning, to save Yemen from them, or otherwise they will want to turn it into a very unstable country. If Iran would be out from Yemen, then everybody will be calm and pull the forces, you know.
Actually, we are there at the invitation of the government of Yemen. We do want to see a political agreement that would end this war in Yemen, but we see it as a vital interest not to have the Iranians on the Arabian Peninsula, especially in our backyard, which is Yemen, which is naturally part of us. If that would stop, we think the war would stop.
Al-Monitor: Are there any regionally based diplomatic contacts going on now between Iran and members of the GCC about Yemen in particular?
Al Khalifa: With Iran, there's nothing that is GCC-Iran. There's nothing as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Iran. We know our Omani brothers have their links, trying their best, but they have not succeeded. They have not succeeded in achieving anything because they themselves in Oman know exactly what the Iranians are doing. But between us and Iran, no, we don't see it. We don't see it happening.
But we would welcome any action that they will do to get out of Yemen and to reach out to us. The Islamic Republic has always been a problem, but it didn't mean that there were no windows with the Islamic Republic. Former President Rafsanjani had personal agreements with King Abdullah, and it was a nice time there and very quiet and calm. Then, of course, President Khatami was also — his time was also a better time between us and the Islamic Republic. But after that, when the hard-liners took over the country, the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] came to the forefront. [IRGC commander] Qasem Soleimani is the one you hear every day about. No. We don't see any chance with them. We hope they reason out and take a better policy.
Al-Monitor: The French president —
Al Khalifa: Macron.
Al-Monitor: — Emmanuel Macron has put forward what would be a five-part agenda for dealing with Iran. Do you think that's a good agenda?
Al Khalifa: We also heard from President Macron later and Germany and the UK that they really put the blame on Iran for attacking Saudi Arabia and calling for renegotiations for this whole thing they have between them. That's very significant.
But we know. We respect the efforts of President Macron. They always try. They always will want to bring parties together, but when they come to bring parties together, they have to bring all of them that respect the possibility of defusing any tension. But when tension continues to grow and continues to happen — when President Macron makes an offer of the five parts and then Saudi Arabia is attacked, what are we talking about? I think Iran is not helping President Macron.