The decision to lift the restrictions, which had frozen tens of millions of dollars worth of planned arms sales last fall, was based on “our desire to help the Bahrainis maintain their external defense capabilities, and a determination that it is in U.S. national interest to let these things go forward,” said one of several senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Bahrain, the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, lies off the coast of Saudi Arabia, opposite Iran.
The equipment released for sale did not include requested items such as TOW missiles or Humvees or supplies such as tear gas, stun grenades and other items that could be “used against protesters in any scenario,” one official said.
The officials declined to provide a complete list of items approved for sale but said they included coastal patrol boats and a frigate that have been designated as excess U.S. military material, as well as engine upgrades for Bahrain’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets. Other sources said the list also included upgrades for Bahrain’s air defense communications, ground-based radar, air-to-air and ground-to-air missile systems and Cobra helicopters, as well as defense radar components and night-vision equipment.
Congressional approval would be required for transfer of some of the newly released defense items, assuming Bahrain decides to purchase them. Administration officials briefed congressional staffs Friday morning on the decision, which some lawmakers criticized as amounting to rewarding Bahrain for its human rights failings.
“This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “Things are getting worse, not better. . . . Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal.”
Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, gave the administration “credit for pushing very hard” for the Bahraini government to implement its commitments to open the political process. “I don’t think there’s any question about what [the administration] is trying to achieve in Bahrain or the sense of urgency they feel.”
But Malinowski characterized the decision to resume some arms sales as shortsighted, saying that “the number one U.S. security interest in Bahrain right now is not making sure they have slightly better F-16 engines, it’s making sure that they implement the reforms needed to make the relationship sustainable over the long term.”