WASHINGTON -- Most Americans couldn't find Bahrain on a map before this week, but the escalating violence unfolding in the tiny island monarchy could do more damage to U.S. interests in the Middle East than the more high-profile revolution in Egypt.
Bahrain is a tiny group of islands that could fit nearly six times over into Rhode Island. The country has been the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet since shortly after World War II and is a major resupply and refueling depot for warships supporting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and patrolling the pirate-infested waters off Somalia.
It is also a strategic listening post for keeping tabs on Iran and its navy.
"Bahrain may be the tiniest Arab country, but it is probably the only country in the region where the United States cannot afford regime change," said Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute Middle East scholar who once lived in Bahrain. "In many ways, Bahrain is to Iran what Kuwait was to Iraq before Saddam Hussein's invasion. As such, it might be the biggest flash point about which Americans have never heard."
The continuing clashes between government forces and protesters converging on Pearl Square were inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Yet the Shiite protesters who are demonstrating against Bahrain's Sunni monarch have taken to the streets of Manama before.
In 1981, Shiite fundamentalists seeking to emulate the Iranian revolution launched a failed coup attempt to install a cleric exiled in Iran. The 1990s saw outbreaks of violence between the government and the country's Shiites, who make up two-thirds of Bahrain's population of 1.2 million.
"Political unrest in Bahrain is nothing new. ... But the scale of the current unrest is much greater," said Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab politics at George Washington University. He said the actions of the Bahraini army this week "were so deeply shocking that we are put in an extremely awkward position. Our security posture in the [Persian] Gulf is partially anchored in Bahrain, but the government of that country has just launched a violent attack on its own citizens."
President Barack Obama spoke Friday evening to Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa about the situation in his country.
As in his statement earlier in the day, Obama condemned the violence against peaceful protesters, urged that those responsible for the violence be held accountable for their actions and asked that the king show restraint.
He also told the king that the United States believes the stability of his country depends on being willing to listen to the aspirations of all Bahrainis and respecting their universal rights.
At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley said that for the United States there is "no cookie-cutter approach" to the unrest.
"What has occurred in Egypt may or may not represent what occurs in a different country," he said. "But it is vitally important for these countries to respond to the needs and aspirations of their people. And excessive force that leads to violence and loss of life and injury, we believe, is not the right answer."
Travel Warning Issued
Friday night the U.S. government issued a travel warning to citizens to defer nonessential travel to Bahrain. Reports surfaced earlier that some companies -- including FedEx and the Houston-based oil services firm Baker Hughes -- had begun evacuating workers from Bahrain.
The Navy said it is monitoring the situation and stressed that the demonstrations are not aimed as the U.S. government. Still, the Navy has warned uniformed personnel, civilian workers and their families to stay clear of the area where the protests are taking place.
U.S. forces in Bahrain aren't the only ones on heightened alert. The Pentagon has several strategic military bases scattered around the gulf. It also is watching closely as protests heat up in the small nation of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, where the only U.S. military base on that continent is located.
But perhaps no country is watching as nervously as Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a 16-mile causeway.
The Saudis are a Sunni monarchy like Bahrain, and the country's oil-rich eastern section is home to a large Shiite minority that sympathizes with the protesters in Manama and with their co-religionists in Tehran.
"The Eastern Province is the Saudis' Achilles' heel, and the Saudis know it," Rubin said. He noted that the Saudis quietly sent troops across the causeway into Bahrain during previous uprisings and are rumored to have sent tanks this time. He sees Bahrain as "a front line in the battle between Sunnis and Shiites" and said it is "a proxy conflict between Saudi and Iran."
Kenneth Katzman, who has studied Bahrain for 25 years as a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, said Bahrain has a volatile ingredient missing in Egypt: a sectarian split.
"People who worked for [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak can theoretically apologize and reintegrate into the [Egyptian] government," Katzman said. "With Bahrain, it's much more a zero-sum game, an almost life-and-death struggle."
Despite intervention by the Saudis in the past, Katzman says their involvement "could be problematic," prompting Iran to take a more active role and expanding the crisis "to very, very big proportions."
Still, Iran might not see its involvement as meddling. Until the 16th century, Bahrain was an Iranian province, and the country's leaders have laid claim to the islands ever since.
Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, says fears of growing Iranian influence in Bahrain are overblown.
"The Iranian rhetoric about Bahrain being the 14th province [of Iran] is old and unconvincing, even to Iranians," he said. "The vast majority of Shiite Bahrainis have no desire to become Iranians or join Iran. In fact, the most significant Shiite spiritual voice which resonates in Bahrain is Ali Sistani in Iraq, not anyone in Iran."
A New Port of Call?
Sectarian fighting aside, if the Western-friendly regime were to fall to the Shiite-backed opposition, Iran would have beachheads on both sides of the gulf.
"It would be a very real and direct and material blow to U.S. efforts to contain Iran, defend the gulf, defend Iraqi oil platforms, prevent the smuggling of [nuclear] material as well as terrorists," Katzman said.
Rubin agrees the chances aren't insignificant that the Navy will have to find another safe harbor in the region.
"Will we be tossed out? If the Khalifas [the ruling family] are forced out, it is likely," he said.
The most likely place to relocate, Katzman said, is the port of Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates. Other options include Kuwait, which may be too far from the strategically key Strait of Hormuz, and Qatar, already home to a large U.S. military presence but perhaps lacking a large enough port.
Rubin notes that while the UAE has its own island dispute with Iran and might welcome the 5th Fleet, "there's a danger that if regional authorities see dominoes falling," he said, "they are not going to risk an American embrace."
This article originally appeared on AOL News on Feb. 18, 2011