With Bahrain’s crown prince on a visit to Washington, the Obama administration said on Friday it is pressing ahead with the sale of some military equipment to the Sunni kingdom – a move sure to draw strong objections from some lawmakers and activist groups concerned about human-rights violations in the country.
The administration views the release of items for Bahrain's Defense Force, Coast Guard, and National Guard as necessary to maintain the “external defense” of Bahrain, home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and ally that serves as a bulwark against Iran in the Persian Gulf. The Sunni kingdom has cracked down on mostly Shiite pro-democracy protests that erupted last February. Human rights concerns prompted the administration to delay the original $53 million arms package announced last October.
"We have made the decision to release additional items to Bahrain mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious unresolved human rights issues that the government of Bahrain needs to address," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.
The announcement came after Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa met with Vice President Joe Biden on Friday, after seeing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this week. Khalifa, in town for his son’s graduation this weekend at American University, was also to see Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
The sale does not include items that can be used for crowd control, Nuland said, and the U.S. will continue to hold the TOW missiles and Humvees that were notified to Congress last October. A congressional staffer briefed on the issue told National Journal the administration is withholding items like small arms, tanks, rifles, and machine guns that could be used for internal repression.
Still, any move to sell weapons to Bahrain is likely to draw strong objections from lawmakers like Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who have for months tried to pressure the administration to abandon the sale they say will send the wrong message to the Sunni kingdom—and the world—on Washington’s commitment to human rights.