ISTANBUL -- The strategic Persian Gulf island of Bahrain, scene of continuing protests since early last year by the majority Shiite Muslims against the Sunni minority monarchy, is on the verge of severe disruption, the State Department warned Tuesday.
“We are worried that the society is moving apart,” a senior official told reporters on a background telephone briefing. “It is clear that if the society breaks apart, Iran will be the winner and the beneficiary,” he said, urging both sides to enter into an immediate dialogue.
Among the reasons for the disruption, he cited the monarchy’s failure to institute reforms it had agreed to one year ago, political opponents who are turning increasingly to violence and the police, who are routinely using excessive force.
“We have enormous security interests” in Bahrain, said a second senior official, referring to the U.S. 5th Fleet, which is home ported there. But he added that the United States has to balance its strategic interests with its interests in encouraging reform.
Bahrain, with a population of 1.2 million, is connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, which sent forces in last spring to back up the government, over the loud protests of Iran, which has repeatedly expressed its concern for the well-being of the island’s Shiite majority.
One of the prime functions of the U.S. Navy in the Gulf is to maintain open shipping lanes and the flow of oil to the industrialized world. Sunni Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, has long vied for influence against Shiite Iran, which has three times its population and has been hostile to the United States since clerics took power in the 1979 revolution.
The State Department called the briefing in advance of the one-year anniversary Friday of a human rights review chaired by Egyptian-American legal scholar Cherif Bassiouni, which called for extensive political reforms and for accountability for the widespread human rights abuses in the 2011 protests.
Reporters were invited to join the news conference on condition that neither official be identified by name.
Not only has the government failed to deliver on the most critical reforms, but it has taken several major steps backward in the past month, stripping 31 Bahrainis of their citizenship and banning all political protests. “We have concerns about bans on demonstrations and taking away citizenship,” the first senior official said.
In addition, the most prominent human rights campaigner on the island, Nabeel Rajab, was sentenced in August to three years in prison for organizing and participating in illegal demonstrations early in 2012.
The anniversary offered the government of Bahrain the opportunity to review the past year and to “narrow the gap between itself and the opposition,” the second senior official said. “We are quite worried about the fact that we’re not seeing any active efforts to try to bridge that gap in any meaningful way.”
The Bassiouni commission “gave people a sense of hope,” instituting a reform process and creating an environment that would outline a common future, the first senior official said.
In fact, prosecutions of state officials have lagged and victims of torture and unlawful incarceration have had little or no closure. “What’s unfortunately happened, on accountability, on the hardest issues, is the government has not followed through,” he said.