Elliott Abrams: Is Bahrain Finished?

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

On February 20, the government of Bahrain condemned a leading human rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, to five years in prison.

His crime: tweeting.

Rajab has been in and out of prison for years for such "crimes," all of which involve the government's effort to eliminate freedom of speech and stop all criticism of the government.

Freedom of speech is supposedly guaranteed by the Bahraini constitution, which also says. "No person shall be subjected to physical or mental torture, or inducement, or undignified treatment." Rajab wrote that there was torture taking place, for which he was prosecuted; he had violated a law against "insulting" a government agency.

Nothing Rajab has done would be a crime in any free country.

His conviction is tragic for him and his family, but it is also tragic for Bahrain.

Since 2011, when protests arose in the context of the Arab Spring, the government has reacted to them with repression. It will not work. Resentment of the royal family, which is Sunni while most Bahrainis are Shia, will only widen among Shia citizens and all citizens who want a free society.

The worst fears expressed in 2011 and after—that the repression would create disaffection, which would lead to more repression and then Iranian meddling—have been borne out. Today, there is real Iranian subversion including shipping weapons into Bahrain. Bahrain is in a downward spiral.

Whether it can be stopped is not clear, at least to me. The current path will lead to more and more repression, more and more Iranian subversion, and more and more violence.

Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab at his home in the village of Bani Jamrah, West of Manama, on November 2, 2014 upon his release on bail. A Bahraini court freed prominent Shiite activist Rajab but barred him from travel until his trial resumes over remarks on Twitter deemed insulting to public institutions, a judicial source said. MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty

Moving off that path would require courageous national leadership, from the Shia community to be sure but above all, and first, from the royal family. It has been absent. If it remains absent in the months and years ahead, Bahrain's future will be darker and darker.

A joint effort by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE is the only solution I can imagine. Together these three governments have the influence to broker a solution—assuming it is not already too late.

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry made an effort in 2011, but that was in essence a private effort and the implementation of its excellent recommendations depended entirely on the royal family's good intentions.

What is needed now is a higher-powered effort that takes into account both the fate of the Fifth Fleet (headquartered in Bahrain) and the likelihood of increasing Iranian subversion and the violence it can produce.

Such an effort may fail, but we will not know whether Bahrain can really be saved from increasing repression, subversion, and violence unless and until we try.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.