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Bahrain’s Foreign Minister: We Haven’t Been ‘Acting as Complete Angels’

May 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is still under a state of emergency as the government has cracked down on protests. Margaret Warner interviews Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa about the political turmoil and what to expect when the emergency measures are lifted.
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JIM LEHRER: Now Margaret Warner reports again from Bahrain, the Persian Gulf nation in political turmoil that is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and sits between two powerful neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Tonight, we have Margaret’s interview with Bahrain’s foreign minister.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Minister, thank you for having us.

President Obama is giving a speech on Thursday addressed to the Middle East and North Africa. Do you feel you have had U.S. support for the actions you have taken here, both in the — in the immediate crisis of the uprising and then in the crackdown?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA, Bahraini foreign minister: Yes, of course, we felt that we had U.S. support in general, as we have always had the U.S. support in Bahrain and the Gulf region. There’s no doubt that the U.S. support is a support that we always look for, because the U.S. is a major ally.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, is the United States urging you to ease some elements of this crackdown, for instance, to open up all the trials to press coverage, or to release some of the hundreds who are still in detention, indefinite detention?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: Being in the national safety situation, there’s no doubt we are in constant contact with the United States regarding the whole — the whole spectrum of events of the last two months.

The U.S. Embassy is now present in the courtroom by a representative, a diplomat from the embassy there. We’re talking about having more representation there. We have nothing against it. We just wanted to ensure that the situation in the courtroom is not chaos, or is an orderly one.

MARGARET WARNER: And the detentions, the medical personnel for example, and the U.S. says moderate opposition figures?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: Yes, we are discussing the number of people arrested. We understand here in Bahrain that there are a number of people who will be charged with crimes, lots of charges with misdemeanors. And some are being studied to be released or so as we approach the end of the national safety situation.

MARGARET WARNER: Many Shias tell us they’re very disappointed in the United States, that the U.S. hasn’t been more forceful on the opposition’s side, the way it was, say, in Egypt and Tunisia. Do you feel you have had the U.S. in your corner during all this?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: Well, also, some Sunnis of Bahrain may tell you the same message, that they’re also disappointed with the United States of what they are doing and possibly siding one way or another.

It is so black and white here. So, that’s what we are going — we are very good, close friends and allies of the United States. And we want the United States to trust and be involved and see what we are doing. But to — it’s not easy to convince all the people.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to international critics, like the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who say this crackdown has just been too heavy-handed and that it ought to be investigated by world bodies, that you have just beyond the pale with the detentions and the way you’re running trials, the allegations of abuse in prison?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: We’re hearing the language. We are all ears. We’re not saying that somebody is not telling the truth.

There’s no doubt we’re saying — and we’re seeing exaggerations all over the world. But that doesn’t mean that we’re acting as complete angels here. We are definitely looking at the picture and looking at what happened. And if there’s any mistake that takes place, we will not tolerate that. It’s not systematic. We will not tolerate that at all.

MARGARET WARNER: The United States has said publicly they want you to take steps to reopen dialogue with the opposition — or, rather, renew your offer to have dialogue with the opposition. Is that your intent, after the state of emergency lifts in a couple of weeks?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: When the dialogue was offered after Feb. 14, it was because of the situation in the street. We wanted to talk to everyone to bring back peace and order, in order to move forward with a lot of the demands of the people.

But now, after restoring law and order, we don’t — we’re not looking at opposition here. We’re looking at two differing views. Between Feb. 14 and March 17, we have seen the country polarize into two camps, which was very, very dangerous. And we warned about that. We warned about not coming close to a sectarian abyss.

We did prevent that from happening. So we’re not looking at a government talking to opposition. We’re looking at a government that is aiming towards total reconciliation of their people.

MARGARET WARNER: The Saudis and other Gulf nations have sent troops here. They’re backstopping this crackdown. How long after the state of emergency is lifted in a couple of weeks do you need them to stay, and why?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: It all depends.

The threat — they’re here for an external threat. They definitely didn’t come down to police or get into any sort of contact with people of Bahrain. They are not an occupying force. They are within the area that is governed by the pact. It’s the Peninsula Shield Force.

They are of the six nations, any threat that any country would face that would definitely no doubt affect its neighbors. Saudi Arabia’s only 28 kilometers away from here. We are looking at the GCC force to be expanded, to have multi bases everywhere in the GCC. So, whether they will leave or stay or be restructured, that’s what — to be discussed in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you mentioned an external threat. What is that external threat?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: What we have been seeing in the last couple of months, the external threat has been coming from Iran.

That’s the threat, because we have seen a barrage, daily, daily barrage. We haven’t seen this before from Iran, daily barrage of statements coming from every corner of Tehran. It worries us that it’s a trend that is nonstop from Iran attacking Bahrain this way. And it worries us long term whether it will affect the relations between the two sides of the Gulf.

MARGARET WARNER: So, are you saying they were behind the uprising to start with or the protests to start with, or that they started, as the U.S. has said, exploiting it politically along the way?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: You can look at it both ways.

I can tell you that they have people sympathizing with them here. And I want to be very careful with this statement. I’m not saying that the Shiites of Bahrain are all siding with Iran. This is completely untrue. But Bahrain is a small country, surrounded by larger countries from every side.

So, everyone has an interest here in Bahrain. And there’s definitely an Iranian interest group here in Bahrain. To answer your question, yes and yes. Yes, there is the Iranian element for the long-term. They have been here. And, definitely, the exploitations intensified after Feb. 14.

MARGARET WARNER: And when the state of emergency is listed, as His Majesty the King has announced will happen in two weeks, will all these extraordinary measures end, or will some remain?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: We — what you will see, that the army will go back to their barracks.

But there’s no doubt that the police will be on their toes 24/7, because the time just after the June 1, when — the end of the state of national safety, it’s a very delicate period that we want to ensure that nothing goes wrong and we don’t slide back to chaos.

MARGARET WARNER: So, some of these measures may remain, even if that means continuing to undermine global confidence here, the foreign investments and the tourism on which your economy depends?

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: Why will it undermine the global confidence and the tourism that we depend on?

We want to make sure that it’s safe and continues to thrive. So, having police to be vigilant and ready to watch and keep the place safe and secure is a — is — ensured success stories around the world, and you can find many examples.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Minister, thank you.

SHEIKH KHALID BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow, Margaret will report on the reaction in Bahrain to President Obama’s Middle East speech.