WASHINGTON — The brutal crackdown in Bahrain poses the greatest Middle East democracy dilemma yet to the Obama administration, deepening a rift with its most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, while potentially strengthening the influence of its biggest nemesis, Iran.
Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have chilled to their coldest since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saudi officials, still angry that President Barack Obama abandoned President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the face of demonstrations, ignored American requests not to send troops into Bahrain to help crush Shiite-led protests there. A tense telephone call between Obama and King Abdullah on Wednesday, Arab officials said, failed to ease the tensions.
“King Abdullah has been clear that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain — never,” an Arab official who was briefed on the talks said. He said King Abdullah’s willingness to listen to the Obama administration had “evaporated” since Mubarak was forced from office.
The Saudi position is rooted in the royal family’s belief that a Shiite uprising next door in Bahrain could spread and embolden Saudi Arabia’s own minority Shiite population and increase Iranian influence in the kingdom, a fear that U.S. officials share. But where Obama and King Abdullah have parted ways, administration officials say, is on how to handle the crisis.
American officials want Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to allow political reforms that could lead to more representation for Shiites under Sunni rule.
During his telephone conversation with the Saudi king, Obama called for an end to the violence that has accelerated in Bahrain over the past few days.
He asked for a “political process as the only way to peacefully address the legitimate grievances of Bahrainis and to lead to a Bahrain that is stable, just, more unified and responsive to its people,” according to Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.
But “there’s not too much listening going on,” a senior administration official said, noting that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were forced to cancel visits to Saudi Arabia in recent days because the king was not willing to host them. (The official reason given was that he was ill.) “There appears to be a great deal of annoyance still,” added the official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity.
A senior administration official noted Thursday that some Shiite opposition leaders had vowed not to respond in kind to the violent crackdown by the government, and to remain peaceful, raising hopes among members of the Obama administration that the Shiite opposition has not become radicalized and might still be amenable to political dialogue. “It suggests to me that the radicalization on the part of the moderate Shia has not yet occurred,” the official said.
But, he added, “Without question, there are people on the extreme end of the opposition who have been in touch with Iran.” He said that the Obama administration had tried to convey to its allies in the Persian Gulf that the governments were most at risk if they approached the unrest only from a standpoint of their own government security.
For the administration, the stakes are higher in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia than in any other Arab country facing unrest now.
“In terms of concrete American national security interests, Bahrain-Saudi Arabia is the place,” said Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa program director with the International Crisis Group. Saudi Arabia is the second largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, and Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Even if the United States could wean itself from dependency on Saudi oil, the kingdom, home to the world’s largest petroleum reserves, still can rock global markets and slow economic recovery in the United States and around the world.
Beyond that, the United States has long viewed Saudi Arabia as a last bulwark against an ascendant Iran in a crucial region and does not want Tehran stepping in to back Shiites in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia.
But where the United States and the Saudis split is over how to prevent Iran from gaining traction. While American officials say the Saudi and Bahraini governments can head off trouble by making political reforms, the Saudis believe that political reforms would only open the door to greater instability.
“Our message to Saudi Arabia is that if you want to avoid the fate of Mubarak, you need to move toward genuine and gradual reform,” said Malley of the Crisis Group. “But what the Saudis are hearing instead is that reform is actually the path to Mubarak’s fate.”
In many ways, Malley and other Middle East experts say, the crisis in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia makes dealing with Egypt and Tunisia look easy. While Egypt is another crucial U.S. ally, Obama could publicly side with the protesters in Tahrir Square without roiling global oil markets or inviting in Iran.
The Obama administration has vested a lot of its hopes of resolving the conflict in Bahrain with the crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is leading government efforts to start a dialogue with the protesters.
The prince, a 1992 graduate of American University in Washington, was described in a 2009 diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks as “very Western in his approach.”