The European Union and the Obama administration have made a splendid art of double standards by imposing sanctions on Tehran’s rulers for their human rights violations and taking military action against the Libyan dictator while failing to address the appalling repression of the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.
For the US and the EU, which claim to uphold principles over interests, this contradictory policy and their silence over the Saudi intervention in Bahrain is particularly harmful.
Indeed, it is hypocrisy for the history books – to be interpreted by future historians as a reflection of the dominance of western realpolitik over values. How else can one interpret the fact that so far EU-US officials have paid minimal attention to the brutal crackdown in Bahrain, which according to various human rights organisations has resulted in dozens of deaths and incarceration of several hundred protesters?
Instead of condemning the Bahraini government’s oppression of its citizens and backing the protesters’ legitimate demand for a constitutional monarchy, the EU and the US have confined themselves to vacuous statements without taking any action proportionate to the gravity of the political crisis in Bahrain. The only exception is the rare show of bravado by Zsolt Nemeth, the Hungarian deputy foreign minister (also an EU official) who has advocated a Libya-style Nato intervention in Bahrain.
No other EU official has seconded Nemeth, who came under attack for making “empty threats” in light of the fact that Bahrain is home to the American Fifth Fleet and therefore a crucial piece of “American turf”. Nemeth’s [statement] coincided with the EU’s latest move to freeze the assets and place travel bans on 32 Iranian officials for human rights violations. Earlier, the US and Sweden had jointly sponsored a UN resolution appointing a human rights observer for Iran.
To their credit, the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and her foreign policy team have wisely insulated themselves from the Saudi-Bahraini PR campaign to rationalise Bahrain’s repressive behaviour by scapegoating Iran. In comparison, the Obama administration has flip-flopped as reflected in the changing position of defence secretary Robert Gates who, in his latest trip to the region, reversed himself on his admission in March that there was no evidence of Iranian meddling in Bahrain.
Aside from principles, the EU and the US have geostrategic interests that demand a more prudent and long-term policy toward the Bahraini crisis, one diametrically different from the current short-sighted approach. The EU and the US must understand that their obliviousness to the pile-up of popular resentment in Bahrain and elsewhere in the changing Middle East is bound to backfire against their long-term and strategic interests in the region.
A more politically and strategically correct approach counsels a course of action along the following lines: strong and sustained condemnation of the Bahraini government for its human rights abuses; threat of diplomatic reprisals; warning to freeze Bahraini assets and impose travel bans on various Bahraini officials implicated in rights violations; calling on Saudi Arabia to respect the democratic aspirations of Bahraini people and to withdraw its military forces from Bahrain; offering to mediate in the Bahrain political crisis; and to facilitate the process toward free elections.
Only through concrete and proactive measures such as these can the EU and the US recuperate from their damaged standing in the Middle East due to the double standards infecting their policies. Given that the Shia leaders in Iran care so much about their disfranchised Shia brethren in Bahrain, a more principled EU-US approach is bound to improve the rocky Iran-EU relations and mitigate tension with the US, positively impacting the deadlocked negotiations on their nuclear standoff.
On the other hand, the absence of real pressure applied on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by the EU and the US, compared with their heroics on Iran, will only deepen the present gulf of distrust between Iran and the west, thus making it less likely that Tehran will take EU’s recent offer of improving relations seriously.
Under a EU-US double-standards scenario, Tehran will also remain intransigent regarding its tension with the US, nuclear programmes and human rights violations.