Gates urges parties in Bahrain to begin dialogue

March 13, 2011

King Hamad receiving Gates - BNA

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was convinced Bahrain was ready to take more than “baby steps” toward reforms, but the opposition movement’s slow response to enter negotiations is allowing more time for Iranian influence to foment.

“There is clear evidence that as the process is protracted – particularly in Bahrain – that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems,” Gates was quoted by Stars and Stripes as telling reporters on the way home from Bahrain.

Gates, the first cabinet secretary to visit Bahrain since the start of protests for reforms on February 14, was received by King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa on Saturday. Gates arrived in Bahrain on Friday evening in a previously unannounced visit.

“I’m convinced that they both are serious about real reform and about moving forward,” he said. “I think the concern now is that they have somebody to talk to,” Gates was quoted as saying by the military news portal.

Prince Salman two weeks ago issued a call for a national dialogue where nobody would be excluded and no issue, no matter how intricate, be dismissed.

However, only the newly-formed National Unity Rally, an umbrella for Sunni religious societies and independent Bahrainis, has so far expressed full support to the idea. Seven opposition societies said that they would be involved only if their pre-conditions that included a new government and a new constitution were fulfilled, while three radical societies dismissed the call.

Internationally, the United Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, the US, the UK, Germany, China, Australia and several other countries have endorsed the dialogue call.

US officials have been for the last two weeks praising Bahrain for negotiating genuine reform with protesters while allowing demonstrations to continue.

According to Gates, the government is now “between a rock and hard place,” with a large number of Bahrainis who have been vociferously shouting that they should not be overlooked in any deal as well as Bahrain’s neighbours closely monitoring developments.

“I think what the government needs is for everybody to take a deep breath and provide a little space for this dialogue to go forward,” Gates was quoted as saying.

Gates reportedly said that the US had no evidence that suggested that Iran started any of the popular revolutions or demonstrations across the region.

However, he said that there was clear evidence that as the process is protracted, the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems.

An unidentified senior defense official said Iran was encouraging the most hard-lined elements not to participate in the reform negotiations process.

Their meddling “runs the gamut” from political propaganda to financial and social influence through Shiite religious networks, the official said in the report.

Crown Prince Salman, at his meeting with Gates, called for the opposition to come together to the negotiating table without preconditions.

“At the end of the day, we all are going to have to live in the same country together and talk to one another,” he was quoted as saying.

In his meetings, Gates praised the long US-Bahrain relationship and said it was not threatened by the internal turmoil.

However, he reportedly said that the reform movements across the region could not end with a return to status quo.

“It could be led or it could be imposed,” he said.

The Defense Secretary dismissed the prospect of instability leading to the ouster of the Fifth Fleet from its decades-long headquarters, saying he saw little immediate chance of that.

“I don’t see any evidence that our (military) presence will be affected in the near- or middle-term,” he reportedly said.



About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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