Mideast expert Walid Phares tells Newsmax that if Iran-backed insurgents seize control in Bahrain they will turn it into an Islamic state and pull the plug on the American military presence in the strategically located Persian Gulf nation.
Phares, a regular Newsmax contributor and author whose latest book is "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East," also asserts that the Obama administration has routinely bungled its approach to the burgeoning democracy movement in the Middle East and needs to reach out more vigorously to pro-democracy forces.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax.TV, Phares assesses the situation in Bahrain after government forces there reacted brutally to anti-regime demonstrations, turning Bahrain into an intensive flash point for the anti-government movement sweeping the Middle East.
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“The protests in the Arab world in general and in the Gulf in particular, including Bahrain, are about civil society rising against the authoritarian regimes,” he says.
“This is something that should have naturally happened since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. It is only happening now.
“But the risk there is that you have a race between civil society groups — students, youth, women, and others — and on the other hand the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, or in the case of Bahrain, forces that are very close to Iran.
“So for the West and America in particular, [the question is] if this is going to end up as a civil society uprising leading to democracy, or if this is going to be seized by, in the case of Bahrain, pro-Iranian elements.”
Referring to the religious aspects of the conflict in Bahrain, Phares says: “You have the religious divide between the ruling minority Sunnis and a majority of the population, which is Shiia.
“The uprising itself is against corruption, for more participation. But it all depends on who is organizing and who is pushing the Shiia masses. If it’s secular forces, then there could be good news because there will be some sort of consensus eventually with the government. If it’s pro-Iranian elements within the Shiia movement, then they will push to a point for the monarchy to collapse and they will declare a Khomeneist Islamic Republic.”
Asked what is likely to happen to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is stationed in Bahrain, Phares responds: “If there is a change in leadership based on a future consensus that the Sunni and the Shiia will work together, that the monarchy will become a constitutional monarchy, or even if a liberal democracy at some point in the future will emerge, then that should not change the status of our forces.
“The only change that would affect our presence in Bahrain is if pro-Iranian elements would actually seize Bahrain. Then there is no doubt about it — we will have to relocate out of Bahrain.”
Phares is highly critical of the Obama administration’s performance in dealing with the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East.
“The problem with the Obama administration policy is that it did not predict or well analyze what is happening in the Middle East,” he tells Newsmax.
“We remember that in June 2009 when there were 1.5 million people in the streets of Tehran, the administration said we don’t want to meddle — meaning we don’t want to side with the forces of democracy. Now, since Tunisia, through Egypt, Oman, in Jordan, Yemen, and now the Gulf and Bahrain, the administration is trying to catch up, but very late in the process.”
The Obama administration has reportedly been at odds with Hillary Clinton’s State Department over the American response to the uprising in Egypt, and the president at a recent press conference expressed only lukewarm support for protestors in Iran.
Phares comments: “I think it’s an issue of advisers — who is advising Secretary Clinton, who is advising President Obama.
“We know that over the past two years there have been trends coming out of the administration, out of the advisers of President Obama, in the sense that there was no support for the Green movement in Iran, there was no support for the Cedars revolution of Lebanon, there was a search for ‘moderates’ inside Hezbollah, and [attempts] to reach out to the so-called moderates in the Taliban, and even [to seek] partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“All that advice coming from the experts who have been consulted by the administration has led to unpreparedness by the administration. Secretary Clinton is trying her best to cope with the situation, but what is needed is a change at the top of the administration in terms of how to deal with the Middle East — partner with the democratic forces and contain the Islamists, not partner with them.”
As for his prediction for Bahrain, Phares says: “The regime is going to be tough. They know that among the demonstrators there are legitimate groups, but there are also pro-Iranian elements. The Bahraini leadership is backed by the Saudis, versus the Iranian ambitions. And therefore I project that it is going to be a long process before it will settle.”
Asked what he would tell Obama, Phares says: “President Obama should go strongly in public and say we, as we did for the dissidents of the Soviet Union, for South Africa, will stand by you, forces of democracy.”
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