Ever since the revolutionary advent of its Islamic government, Iran has aspired to spread its worldview across the Islamic world, but first and foremost across Arab lands. The hope was to establish Iranian hegemony in the Gulf, foster Shi’a ascendancy across the Sunni world, and gain the leadership of an anti-American, anti-Western and anti-imperialist struggle. Yet for all its efforts to export its combustible blend of the subversive and the divine, in the three decades of its existence, the Islamic Republic of Iran has only had limited successes – it has established a firm foothold in Lebanon; it has become the chief sponsor of resistance movements in Gaza and the West Bank; and it has cemented strategic relations with Syria, the last Arab nationalist government of the region, and Sudan. Across the region, US backed regimes resisted and effectively repressed Islamic movements’ efforts to seize power; and countries formerly aligned with the Soviet Union have gradually edged closer to the US. In short, before 2011, Iran’s ambition to export its revolution failed to materialize. In fact, for several months between June 2009 and February 2010, it almost appeared as if a popular uprising might unseat Iran’s clerical regime and establish democracy in Iran.
By the time Arab protesters took to the streets in Tunis, Cairo, Manama and other capitals across the region, Iran had managed to crush its internal opposition and neutralize its challenge to Islamic governance. What Iranian regional subversion and support for Islamic movements had failed to achieve in three decades, people power now appeared set to do – topple the hated monarchies and the other rulers and replace them with regimes potentially friendlier to Islamic forces and more hostile to American interests.
While the score board is by no means all in Tehran’s favor, the turmoil currently engulfing the region has created more opportunities than challenges for Iran. For the first time in thirty years, Iran sees a chance to reduce American influence significantly as the rise of Islamic forces closer to Iran’s worldview and foreign policy ambitions is now a distinct possibility.
The Arab Spring has significantly affected only six countries so far – Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria – albeit in very different ways. All other Gulf, Levant and North African countries experienced only limited upheaval, were able to quell it or pre-empt it through a mixture of repression, reform and cash handouts. Though change is still a distinct possibility, in places like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria or Morocco, unrest has not significantly influenced the course of foreign policy. Elsewhere however, popular stirrings have either undermined traditional US allies (Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen) or strengthened Islamic forces (Egypt, Tunisia and possibly Libya) and only in one case they have clearly cornered an Iranian proxy (Syria).
People-power enthusiasts have emphasized the analogy between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Arab Spring, forgetting three important differences: first, the hated superpower behind the regimes that protesters wished to oust, in five out of six cases, were Western democracies (Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen), not their ideological adversary; secondly, Western liberal democracy is not the universally shared aspiration of protesters – in the Arab world, Islamism remains still by and large the strongest, longest standing and best organized opposition force (and idea) and one whose political model was not yet tested (with the notable exceptions of Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan notwithstanding due to historical and cultural reasons). And thirdly, the highly segmented ethnic and religious mosaic of some of these societies further complicates matters. In places like Bahrain, Libya, Syria or Yemen, turmoil could lead to disintegration and chaos rather than regime change and transition to democracy – more like Yugoslavia in 1991 and Iraq in 2003, less like Czechoslovakia in 1989 and 1992.
These differences create opportunities for Iran.
Despite the much touted Sunni-Shi’a divide, Iran has much to gain in electoral victories for Islamic forces in upcoming elections in Egypt and Tunisia, given their readiness to shift their countries’ foreign policy towards a less pro-Western and more Non-Aligned Movement worldview. A shift in Egypt may mean a major crack in the loose regional alliance against Iran – and the current state of lawlessness in Egypt-nominally controlled Sinai has already enabled Iran to increase its military support to Hamas in the Gaza strip, both qualitatively and quantitatively. A move away from secularism and a pro-Western foreign policy in Tunisia also bodes well for Iran. And finally, while Libya has little strategic significance for Iran, there are three remarkable advantages for Iran.
The first is the distraction caused by the Libya crisis for Western foreign policy establishments; the second is the damage to the image of the West as a superior military power, as NATO takes months to defeat a vastly inferior force armed with Soviet-era obsolete weapons and largely cut off from supply lines; and the third is the lesson for nuclear negotiations that can be drawn from the Libya experience. After all, Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gheddafi, had won friendship in Western capitals thanks to his decision to renounce his nuclear weapons program in 2004. The nuclear deal did not save him, ultimately (at least from a military operation whose outcome is uncertain to this day). In any case, the Libya precedent is now a vindication of Iran’s intransigent posture in its nuclear negotiations with the West.
Events in Bahrain, by contrast, offer a mixed bag for Tehran. Iran benefited in two ways. First, the accusations against the Shi’a opposition of conniving with Iran were used as a trigger for repression and Saudi military intervention, but may end up radicalizing a Shi’a population whose grievances were genuine and whose demands were reasonable. Secondly, the resulting rift between Saudi Arabia and the US which resulted – and which was compounded by Saudi anger at the US for its treatment of Egyptian former president, Hosni Mubarak – has convinced the Saudis that the US umbrella may no longer be a sufficient guarantee to the monarchy’s survival. The consequence is not just the newly found assertiveness that led Saudi troops into Pearl Square, but also a readiness to find an accommodation with Iran over Iraq (as the US troop withdrawal looms) and other regional disputes.
There have been drawbacks too. Tensions in Bahrain may have radicalized the opposition, but the popular uprising’s failure to gain a solid foothold in the island and Iran’s acquiescence to Saudi military intervention have damaged Iran’s standing among the Gulf’s Shi’a minorities, as they highlighted Iran’s inability to come to the rescue of its natural allies in the Gulf.
In Syria the jury is still out but Iran’s reported active involvement in helping Damascus quell the revolt is proof of the high stakes involved. A defeat of the ruling Assad dynasty and the potential descent of the country into civil war would permanently remove Iran’s most important, longest-standing and most reliable ally from Iran’s sphere of influence. A collapse of the regime in Damascus would have negative repercussions for Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, Iran’s proxies in the Palestinian territories. If nothing else, it would deprive Iran of a contiguous border with its ideological bane, Israel, and an ability to wage war against its Zionist nemesis in conventional ways. A Syrian civil war along sectarian lines could spill over into Turkey, a country whose government has invested significant political capital to improve relations with Tehran and who is now slowly recognizing the downside of sacrificing its friendship with Israel and the West in favor of good relations with Syria and Iran.
On the other hand, the descent of some Arab countries into ethnic slaughter could offer Iran an opportunity to intervene on the side of those forces that are likelier to share Tehran’s interests – Shi’a minorities and Islamic movements and, in places like Yemen, undermine America’s influence and presence.
The Arab Spring is by no means a uniform phenomenon. It is still in its early phases and it will most likely become even more diverse in its manifestations and outcomes from country to country. For Iran, there is a clear benefit in seeing Egypt open the door to an Islamic presence in government and realign its foreign policy to reflect a less pro-Western stance than during the Mubarak era. There is an opportunity across the region as timid reforms and freer elections may give Islamic forces a chance to rise to power and change the course of their countries. And there is a hope that new governments will realign their foreign policy – thereby reducing American influence – to placate the strong anti-American sentiment that still looms large in the Arab world. But there are also dangers – and the loss of Syria would, above all, cause the most significant setback to Iranian regional ambitions in the last three decades.
Western policy makers should therefore take notice.
The speed by which Mubarak, America’s longest serving ally in the region, was abandoned in favor of the unknown contrasts significantly with the hesitancy shown later by Western powers to help Syrian protesters remove Bashar al Assad from power. Yet, Western interests would have been served by precisely the opposite approach – one where allies were gently forced to pilot gradual democratic transitions while adversaries were energetically pushed aside. With an eye to Iran, it is not too late to readjust our approach.