The United States is selling some military equipment to Bahrain as it walks a fine line between pushing the Sunni monarchy to open talks with the opposition while proceeding cautiously with a strategic ally to counter Iran.
The sale of an undisclosed amount of spare parts and equipment has drawn opposition from some in Congress who argue that it sends the wrong signal about the U.S. commitment to human rights. The State Department said late Friday that the equipment is for Bahrain's external defense and support for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is based in the country.
"This isn't a new sale nor are we using a legal loophole," the department said. "The items that we briefed to Congress were notified and cleared by the Hill previously or are not large enough to require congressional notification."
The administration said it is maintaining its "pause on most security assistance for Bahrain pending further progress on reform."
It was almost a year ago that Bahrain's Shiite majority demanded greater rights from the 200-year-old ruling Sunni dynasty. More than 35 people have died in the unrest that Bahrain leaders claim Iran has encouraged.
The United States sees its allies in the Persian Gulf region as particularly crucial after Iran warned it might use military force to close the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the gulf in response to international economic sanctions.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., collected signatures from lawmakers on a letter they plan to send to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton later this week expressing their opposition to the administration's moves. They argue that Bahrain is still violating human rights and using excessive force to crack down on protests.
"Small steps deserve small rewards," the two wrote. "In the case of Bahrain, any military equipment is a big reward and will be viewed as such by other governments and the people of Bahrain. The incentives are simply wrong."