Lobbying 2016: United States holds its nose as Bahrain intensifies crackdown

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The Obama administration remains determined to resume military cooperation with Bahrain while simultaneously seeking to reverse the island kingdom's continuing crackdown on political opponents.

The clashing goals have forced the US State Department to adopt conflicting policies. Top US officials have condemned the intensifying repression against the Shiite opposition while in the same breath endorsing Bahraini claims of nefarious Iranian influence inside the country.

Human-rights groups and a handful of lawmakers are pushing for a tougher US response, to no avail. The island's strategic prominence as a US Navy base coupled with an aggressive lobbying campaign have so far ensured that any criticism is muted, if expressed at all.

"As repression in Bahrain has continued unabated, US policy toward democracy and human rights in the small Gulf monarchy and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet has notably weakened," the nonprofit Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) noted in a sharply critical report earlier this year.

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Bahrain's return into the United States’ good graces was certified last summer when the State Department lifted its hold on arms exports that could be used against protesters, which had been put in place after the country's 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Since then, the United States has resumed military cooperation with Bahrain; the aid request for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 seeks $6.6 million in military aid, including $5 million in support for the Bahrain Coast Guard that is seen as playing a crucial role in interdicting weapons smuggling by Iran.

"Bahrain is a critical security partner of the United States," Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to Bahrain in April, "and whenever [Bahraini leader] Sheikh Khalid [al Khalifa] and I get together, we have a very full agenda and, frankly, a very cooperative discussion."

During that same visit, Kerry faulted the Bahraini opposition for boycotting elections it deemed rigged. That framing, according to POMED, places "nearly all of the blame on the opposition for the lack of political progress in the country."

The State Department's annual terrorism overview released in early June "appears to back the Bahraini claims" of an Iranian hand in the country's unrest, the Congressional Research Service notes in its latest analysis of US-Bahrain ties.

"Iran has also provided weapons, funding and training to Shia militants in Bahrain," the terror report states. "In 2015, the Government of Bahrain raided, interdicted and rounded up numerous Iran-sponsored weapons caches, arms transfers and militants."

The United States, however, has also been critical of the country's failure to live up to its promise to become more democratic.

A congressionally mandated State Department report concluded in June that "more work remains to be done" to implement reforms recommended by an independent commission. "The government of Bahrain continues to charge and prosecute individuals with offenses involving political expression, including some who have not advocated violence," the report states, according to Reuters.

State Department spokesman John Kirby addressed the report at his June 22 press briefing.

"The report concludes that the Government of Bahrain has implemented some important recommendations of the commission of inquiry, including establishing institutions of oversight and accountability, conducting human rights training for police and rebuilding mosques that were destroyed in 2011," Kirby said. "However, there are other key recommendations that have not been fully implemented. Limitations on political activism and peaceful assembly, lack of due process and the criminalization of the exercise of free expression continue to undermine the progress Bahrain has made since 2011," he added.

The Obama administration has also criticized the dissolution of the main Shiite opposition group, al-Wifaq, and the arrest of its leader, Ali Salman.

"The United States is deeply concerned by the decision of a Bahraini court to dissolve the opposition [al-Wifaq] political society and liquidate its assets," Kerry said in a July statement. "This ruling is the latest in a series of disconcerting steps in Bahrain, including the Government of Bahrain's revocation of [Shiite cleric] Sheikh Isa Qassim’s citizenship and the arrest of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab."

Bahrain critics in Congress have latched on to the recent crackdown to rekindle their push to restrict arms sales. A bipartisan group of seven senators, including vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine, D-Va., wrote to Kerry in June to urge him to reconsider military aid unless freedom of speech and assembly are guaranteed.

Those efforts have failed to gain much traction, however. Only five senators and 16 House members have endorsed legislation to block certain arms sales until the commission's recommendations are adopted.

Bahrain has actively lobbied to keep such efforts at bay.

The kingdom spent $855,000 lobbying the US government last year, according to lobbying records, considerably less than the almost $1.2 million spent in 2012 and 2013 when US pushback was at its height. The bulk of that money — $757,000 in 2015 — went to DLA Piper for "advice and assistance in connection with obtaining support for anti-terrorism efforts undertaken by the Kingdom of Bahrain."

Bahrain is also less resource-rich than its Gulf neighbors and depends on its 2004 free trade agreement with the United States to help support a textile industry that exports an estimated $200 million worth of garments to the United States every year and employs some 6,000 people. To help preserve a key provision that allows Bahrain to use imported yarn and still benefit from preferential tariffs, the nation’s Economic Development Board paid Illinois-based Sorini, Samet & Associates $98,000 last year.

Editor's note: This article has been amended to update the number of signatures on a congressional letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

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Julian Pecquet is Al-Monitor's Washington Editor. He was previously Congressional Correspondent from 2014 through May 2017 and most recently before that headed up The Hill's Global Affairs blog. On Twitter: @JPecquet_ALM, Email: jpecquet@al-monitor.com.

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