By Humeyra Pamuk and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Bahrain on Wednesday signed a strategic security and economic agreement which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said would expand defense and intelligence collaboration between the two countries.
The agreement was signed at a meeting at the State Department between Blinken and Bahrain's crown prince and prime minister, Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa.
"At the heart of the agreement is a shared goal: working together to build a region that is more secure, more prosperous, and that's more connected to the world economy," Blinken said to reporters just before the signing ceremony.
"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."
The development comes during a period of churn in the Gulf as the Biden government negotiates with Saudi Arabia about a U.S.-Saudi defense pact and the possibility of an Israel-Saudi agreement aimed at normalizing relations.
Bahrain already hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are deployed in Bahrain, which is designated as a major non-NATO ally.
A senior Biden official, briefing reporters on Tuesday ahead of the announcement, said the crown prince's visit to Washington is the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of diplomatic engagement, including multiple trips to Manama by senior U.S. officials.
In a region wary of Iran's influence, the official said the agreement is "about deterrence and setting conditions for a more stable region going forward."
The deal was described by U.S. officials as a legally binding agreement, but one that does not carry the Article V mutual defense pact that is part of the NATO treaty.
The White House said the agreement will help formalize steps the U.S. Central Command was taking to integrate the region’s air and missile defense systems and increase "maritime domain awareness," according to a White House fact sheet.
U.S. officials planned to bring up human rights concerns during the talks with the Bahrainis, the official said.
Hundreds of political prisoners in Bahrain suspended a hunger strike after the government promised to improve prison conditions, rights groups said.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said the prisoners agreed to suspend the strike, which started on Aug. 7, until Sept. 30 to allow implementation of the promised changes.
A Bahraini government spokesperson denied there were any political prisoners in the kingdom. "No one is detained for expressing his or her peaceful political views," the spokesperson said in emailed comments.
"However, the authorities have a duty to investigate and if appropriate prosecute individuals – as in all countries – when conduct strays into violence or seeks to incite violence or hatred."
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Steve Holland; Editing by Leslie Adler and Stephen Coates)