U.S. Lifts Holds on Arms Sales to Bahrain

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration announced yesterday that it will resume weapons sales to Bahrain, which had been reduced since Bahrain’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 2011. When announcing the move, State Department Spokesman John Kirby said that “Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation.” Kirby also noted, “Bahrain is an important and long-standing ally on regional security issues, working closely with us on the counter-ISIL campaign and providing logistical and operational support for countering terrorism and maintaining freedom of navigation.”

This decision comes just weeks after the conviction and sentencing of opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman for criticizing the government, as well as the release of the State Department’s Human Rights Report for 2014. That report describes myriad rights abuses committed by Bahraini authorities and a culture of impunity for perpetrators of crimes against political prisoners and peaceful protesters.

Last week, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him not to renew arms sales to Bahrain, saying he would use his position to oppose any such moves. Following the announcement of the renewal, Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) stated “if the U.S. is truly committed to regional stability, we must push our allies to embrace policies that will strengthen free societies, not silence entire segments of their population. This is the only way to combat extremism.”

The Project on Middle East Democracy released a statement expressing dismay at the decision, observing that “when the administration suspended weapons sales in 2011, the message was that sales would not resume in the absence of meaningful political reform.” However, the decision to resume sales now, when the human rights and political situation in Bahrain has deteriorated, is a worrying reversal of that policy. The statement concluded that the “country’s dangerous and unsustainable trajectory threatens its own stability as well as its capacity to remain a reliable strategic partner.”

Elliott Abrams wrote that “indifference to repression of the Shi’a majority there risks the eventual expulsion of the Fifth Fleet, never-ending instability in Bahrain, and the creation of real opportunities for Iranian trouble-making.” Abrams also chided the administration for giving “misleading” information on the situation in Bahrain, where political repression persists. Marcus Weisgerber noted that “restoration shows how the U.S. puts a premium on defense relations.”