The Biden administration signed a security agreement with the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain on Wednesday, pledging its commitment to defend the authoritarian country from attacks.
The format of the agreement could serve as a template for other Gulf Arab governments, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, that have recently demanded stronger security guarantees from the United States to deter threats from Iran.
Bahrain — an island nation that is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet — has a particularly tense relationship with Iran, located just across the Persian Gulf. Under the new agreement, if the kingdom were attacked, the United States would consult with the Bahraini government and determine the best way to “confront the ongoing aggression,” said a senior Biden administration official, who briefed journalists on the condition of anonymity.
One of the provisions in the agreement allows Bahrain and the United States to invite other countries to join the pact, the official said.
“We’re looking forward to using this agreement as a framework for additional countries that may wish to join us in strengthening regional stability, economic cooperation and technological innovation,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said during the signing ceremony.
For years, officials in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have pressed the United States to offer stronger, more binding commitments to their own security, complaining that American responses to attacks they have faced by Iran-backed militias — particularly the Houthi rebel group that controls northern Yemen — were inadequate.
Recently, Saudi officials have been requesting these greater American security assurances as one of several prerequisites to establishing relations with Israel — an initiative the Biden administration has been pursuing over the past few months. The agreement with Bahrain could become an attractive example to imitate for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.
Mr. Blinken and Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, signed the pact, called the “Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement,” on Wednesday in Washington.
The administration official said that both countries had committed to “confront any external aggression.” While the agreement “does not cross the threshold of a treaty” — which would require Senate consent — it is a “legally binding” pledge that is intended to deter conflict in the Middle East, the official said.
The agreement angered and disappointed Bahraini activists and other critics of the Gulf monarchy, which crushed an uprising that swept the kingdom in 2011, during the Arab Spring.
Bahrain’s royal family, which is Sunni Muslim, rules over a majority Shiite Muslim population, many of whom complain of discrimination, corruption and political repression.
When Mr. Biden assumed office, he declared that his diplomacy would be “rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values,” including human rights and “defending freedom.”
A Bahraini human rights activist called the Biden administration hypocritical for supporting a government that was accused of torturing detainees during the Arab Spring and jailing hundreds of political opponents, sentencing many of them to life in prison.
The activist, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Britain-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said that the security agreement constituted a “reward” that Bahraini authorities could interpret as “a green light” to increase political repression.
“The U.S. administration are siding with the Bahraini regime and abandoning political prisoners and the most basic desire for human rights,” Mr. Alwadaei said.
In a statement earlier this month, Bahrain’s National Communication Center, which handles inquiries from international media, denied that any Bahrainis were detained for expressing “peaceful political views” and asserted that the government upheld citizens’ rights to freedom of expression.
The agreement with Washington was signed a day after hundreds of Bahraini prisoners who had been refusing meals for more than one month announced they were suspending their hunger strike amid deteriorations in their health, and government pledges to improve their conditions. Their collective action had sparked street protests in Bahrain.
The Biden administration said in a statement that human rights were a key part of dialogue between the two countries. The senior official said that Washington does not “shy away” from raising such issues with Bahrain.
At the signing ceremony, Prince Salman said that in today’s world, “people are faced by a number of choices: either the rise of authoritarianism, or the growth of libertarianism.”
He said he believed the agreement would form “the foundation for a new global architecture” that would become historically significant.
“It is an open agreement,” he said. “We will be welcoming more members, hopefully.”
Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.