While Bahrain is a small, Iraq and Iran, the only other Mideast Shia majority states, closely follow the ongoing developments, which provide Iran with the perfect propaganda tool for alleging a US-Saudi conspiracy against Shias.

Backed by this, even modest Iranian incitement threatens Iraq’s fragile Sunni-Shia relations. A shift in Iraqi protests against Bahrain to generalized retaliation against Sunnis could have devastating consequences. The 2006 bombing of the Shia al-Askari mosque sparked a civil conflict leaving at least 100,000 dead.


Even if Iran cannot manipulate Iraqis, the perception of a war on Shias can allow its guiding Lebanese proxy Hezbollah in targeting Sunnis, fueling a renewed civil war already threatened by Hezbollah if implicated in former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination.


And then there’s Syria. Given the dim implications of Iran’s closest ally falling, nothing would benefit Iran more than religious justification for intervening on behalf of Syria’s Shia-led (Alawite) government if abandoned by the Sunni-majority military.


While the US’ tacitly green-lighting Bahrain’s crackdown will have long term consequences, potentially turning a once democratic movement towards extremism as it comes to view Iran as a potential savior, direct Iranian involvement in Syria will shatter the current regional status quo to the detriment of the US and allies.


If popular calls for Arab democracy do not motivate Obama in taking a more active approach, the prospects of unprecedented regional instability should. Bahrain believes, and it has every indication, that it has a free hand. Unfortunately, by banking on the US’ hands-off approach, so does Iran.


Instead of addressing the boiling matter, Obama continues focusing on the great diversion of despotic Arab regimes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While the establishment of a Palestinian state is important, it will neither bridge a reemerged Sunni-Shia rift nor move a single authoritarian Arab regime in initiating true democratic reform.


Worse, greater Iranian involvement in Israel’s neighbors will heighten Israeli security concerns so that a Palestinian state is viewed as unacceptable while encouraging the Palestinians in using the security threat to hold out for a better deal.


Combating the prospects of regional instability requires bold US action. First, the US should send a clear message by harshly condemning Bahrain’s Kristallnact and indefinitely recalling Ambassador Ereli, a former human rights activist.


Second it must demand the release of leading Bahraini human rights activists and opposition figures such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Abduljalil al-Singace. While a meeting between Ambassador Ereli and Bahrain’s interior minister led to the release of 312 detainees, no leading members of the opposition were released.


Third, the US must pressure Bahrain into allowing the monitoring of hospitals, where doctors and recovering protesters are abducted, by Red Crescent observers.


Finally, a substantial national dialogue is needed between the monarchy and all parts of the opposition.


One might object that US security is dependent on good relations with Bahrain. After all, it’s home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.


Current policy, however, precariously assumes the al-Khalifa monarchy’s continued rule. The Iranian Revolution demonstrates such an assumption’s shortsightedness. Moreover, Bahrain’s absolute security dependence on the US will prevent any meaningful retaliation. This applies to all Gulf States because without the US, they’re incapable of containing Iran.


When Saudi King Abdullah called President Obama and chided him for turning his back on Mubarak, Obama opted for diplomacy. It is now time he reassert US dominance in Gulf relations to avoid an Iranian propaganda victory with dangerous consequences. This requires taking a stern position on Bahrain.


Matthew Mainen is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.