Jasim Husain, a leading opposition figure in Bahrain, does not look like a pawn of Iran's mullahs. The American-trained economist wears a tie and speaks in near-flawless English. Husain doesn't sound like a pawn of Iran's mullahs either. In an interview Tuesday, he praised the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf and said he was grateful that the U.S. Navy base in his country had brought McDonald’s and T.G.I. Friday’s to the capital, Manama. But as a leading figure in his country's Shiite opposition, Husain is just the type of person Bahrain's government and other Gulf allies have tried to paint as the tip of Iran's spear.
"The issues at stake in Bahrain predate the Arab Spring," Husain said in an interview with The Daily Beast. "The issues are local, they are not regional; hence it is not Iran fed. The main demands of the position center on turning Bahrain into a true democratic nation, a civilian democracy, not an Iranian-style or a Saudi-style theocracy. We’d like a society where there is tolerance and active civil society, cosmopolitanism, free media; all of which are not on offer in Iran and Saudi Arabia."
Bahrain’s version of the Arab Spring kicked into full gear after police disrupted demonstrations on Feb. 17 at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout. The raid and subsequent arrests of prominent Shiite activists prompted the country’s largest opposition party, Al Wefaq of which Husain is a leading member, to walk out of Parliament. A coalition of opposition parties has since called for Bahrain’s prime minister to step down and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to yield to the restraints of a new constitution that would end state-sanctioned discrimination against the country’s Shiite majority.
While President Obama was quick to side with the demonstrators against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the reaction to the uprising in Bahrain has been different. Obama approved this summer a $53 million sale of Humvees and missiles to Bahrain, even as the unrest in the country continued to boil. Last month, the State Department announced that it would be suspending the sale until it reviews a government report to be released later this month on the unrest in the country.
“We have no problem with the proposed weapons sale,” Husain said. “We’d like to see Congress tie the weapons sales to Bahrain improving its human-rights record, ending discrimination, and conducting widespread reform. But we believe Bahrain has every right to these weapons and to defend itself.”
Houda Itafar, Bahrain’s ambassador to Washington, told The Daily Beast in written responses to questions raised in the Husain interview: “Hindering future arms sales will be to nobody’s advantage but Iran.” She added, however, that her country “is committed to implementing meaningful reforms following the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report and working with all opposition societies to create a stronger representative government.”
Itafar would not criticize Husain by name, but she did say his party was carrying water for Iran. “Al Wefaq Islamic Society is carrying the agenda of Iran and Iran’s government similarly promotes instability in Bahrain,” she wrote. “It is not unusual to see Al Wefaq members carrying Hizbullah banners and burning American flags. Al Wefaq has rejected every single chance for meaningful dialogue, and the group strongly supports clerical involvement in Bahrain’s government affairs.”
The leader of Al Wefaq, Ali Salman, studied in the Iranian seminaries of Qom in the 1980s. But in more recent years he has sought to gain friends in Washington and other Western capitals, according to Toby Craig Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University, who said Salman’s efforts have been largely fruitless in the West.
Jones, a former researcher for the International Crisis Group on Bahrain, said he has seen no evidence that Al Wefaq today has any meaningful ties to Iran. He said the grievances of the opposition “all have to do with political institutions and the political process, making those as fair as possible.” He added, “There is no evidence, public or otherwise, that they want to create an Iranian-style state.”
When asked about Iran’s support for the opposition, Husain said it was limited to media coverage and rhetorical support. “There are some who see that at least Iran is willing to show and express support to and willing to understand the problems facing Bahrain’s Shiite majority with regards to discrimination.” he said. “Iran lends its media to give sympathetic coverage, but this is very much rhetoric, they provide a forum for Bahrainis to express their concerns.”
The question of Iran’s role in the opposition is of keen interest to the U.S. military. The Navy's Fifth Fleet is stationed in Manama, and there are few other ports in the Persian Gulf are deep enough to accommodate U.S. battleships.
Husain said the opposition had no qualms about the U.S. Navy being based in Manama. “We want the U.S. Fifth Fleet to remain in Bahrain because it is providing the sort of security needed for the larger Gulf region.”
Husain, who is a University of Missouri-trained economist, also said the U.S. Navy contributes to Bahrain’s economy: “Americans are known for their willingness to spend, they spend more than their means, and that’s good for Bahrain.” He added, “They have turned part of Bahrain into Little America, where there are Starbucks and T.G.I. Friday’s. That has made the place very lively. They are bringing about a better quality of life to Bahrain.”
The ambassador, however, said she did not believe the Wefaq party or the opposition would be in favor of the Fifth Fleet if they were ever to come to power. “Al Wefaq has deliberately misrepresented their political beliefs for international audiences,” she wrote. “However, statements made domestically in Bahrain reveal the group’s true intentions. Leaders of Al Wefaq have stated publicly that Bahrain should not host the Fifth Fleet. Ali Salman, Al Wefaq’s secretary-general, has rejected the necessity of a long-term American naval presence in the Gulf.”
Salman told The Washington Times in an interview published in September that he would not oppose the Fifth Fleet’s basing in Manama for the short term, but that over the long and medium term the democratic awakening in the Middle East would eliminate the need for the U.S. Navy in the region.