Is Iran Really the Winner in the Arab Revolt?

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“Arab Unrest Propels Iran as Saudi Influence Declines,”  warned a New York Times headline Thursday, above an article noting that the democratic uprisings across the Arab world have put paid to the idea of a pro-U.S. “alliance of moderates” — Arab autocracies and Israel — joining hands to curb Iran’s rise as a regional power.

In the story,  Michael Slackman writes:

The uprisings are driven by domestic concerns. But they have already shredded a regional paradigm in which a trio of states aligned with the West supported engaging Israel and containing Israel’s enemies, including Hamas and Hezbollah, experts said. The pro-engagement camp of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is now in tatters. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been forced to resign, King Abdullah of Jordan is struggling to control discontent in his kingdom and Saudi Arabia has been left alone to face a rising challenge to its regional role.

A similar theme was sounded in Foreign Policy by former NSC staffers-turned-fierce critics of U.S. Iran policy Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett, who note that Iran’s influence had grown steadily as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Israel’s military campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza, while the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt deprives Washington of a key pillar of its “alliance of moderates” strategy. They write:

On Obama’s watch, the regional balance of influence and power has shifted even further away from the United States and toward Iran and its allies. The Islamic Republic has continued to deepen its alliances with Syria and Turkey and expand its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine… And, now, the Obama administration stands by helplessly as new openings for Tehran to reset the regional balance in its favor emerge in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and perhaps elsewhere. If these “pro-American” Arab political orders currently being challenged or upended by significant protest movements become at all more representative of their populations, they will no doubt become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States… [and] at least somewhat receptive to Iran’s message of “resistance” and independence from Israel and the West.

And former State Department official Suzanne Maloney wrote Wednesday in the Financial Times (subscription) that

With a revived opposition mounting a number of large protests, the Islamic Republic ought to be looking across the region with trepidation. Instead its leadership sees the turmoil across the Arab world as confirmation of its ascendancy as a regional power, and America’s decline.

It’s certainly true that Iran emerges stronger from the Arab revolt — particularly if it manages to avoid a rebellion of its own — primarily because the fall of Mubarak and the crisis of other Arab autocracies weakens U.S. efforts to pressure Iran, first and foremost on the nuclear issue. The turmoil in the Arab world has sent oil prices surging, which helps Tehran offset the impact of sanctions. The Arab autocrats who, according to the WikiLeaks cables, spoke privately in favor of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the ropes, and there’s no reason to believe their own publics perceive Iran as a threat, much less support action against the Islamic Republic.  The idea that Iran is facing a united front of pressure that would force it to concede on the nuclear issue has long been somewhat fanciful; now it’s increasingly hard to sustain. What has collapsed along with Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime is the Pax Americana that has made Washington the single biggest influence in the region since the 1970s.

So Iran certainly gains by the easing of pressure and the diminished threat of military action by the U.S. or Israel. But it’s something of a leap to paint the fall of pro-U.S. autocrats as an expansion of Iranian influence; there’s no evidence to support that, yet, beyond the case of Lebanon where Tehran’s protege, Hizballah, is now in charge of government (although mindful of the need to avoid antagonizing sectors of society and the neighborhood less enthusiastic about Iranian regional aims).

No question the Iranian leadership would love to claim the Arab rebellion as an extension of its own Islamic revolution, but Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood sharply rebuked Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, when he suggested as much. The Egyptian Islamists made clear that their revolution is a democratic rather than an Islamic one; even if the Brotherhood were dominant in Egypt’s democratic revolution, which it isn’t, there’s no a priori reason to believe that would translate into Iranian influence — the Egyptian Islamist movement predates the Iranian revolution by some six decades.

The Iranians also did a bit of grandstanding earlier this week by sailing two warships through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, but while that gesture certainly alarmed the Israelis, it will have prompted little more than a shrug on Egypt’s streets. They may have overthrown a U.S.-backed autocrat, but Egyptians’ goal was independence, sovereignty and democracy – not to subordinate themselves to any other aspirant hegemon.   By allowing the Iranian ships to transit the Canal, Egypt’s military rulers are signaling they want to  normalize ties with Iran. That doesn’t make them proxies of Tehran any more than Iraq, Turkey or, for that matter, Brazil are. They’re simply opting out of a U.S. regional strategy of confronting Iran.

Locked into a Cold War mindset, the U.S. and its closest allies have had a hard time grasping the idea that countries pursuing an independent foreign policy doesn’t necessarily translate into a zero-sum gain for Iran.

Sometimes that’s self-serving: It certainly suits the Saudis, for example, to pain the popular struggle for democracy in the Arab world as a Trojan Horse for Iran, if only as a basis to demand U.S. support for authoritarian crackdowns. But it’s also based on the notion once formulated by Stalin, but later repeated by President George W. Bush at the dawn of his ‘war on terror’ , that “those who are not with us are against us.” The real world is never that simple. But the fact that countries like Turkey and Iraq have moved out of the orbit of Pax Americana by adopting an independent foreign policy that includes friendly ties with Iran doesn’t make them subordinate to a Pax Persia. Far from it. Indeed, if the Iranian regime is encouraged by current events in the Arab world, that may be because Iran is operating, albeit wishfully at times, on the reverse of the Bush/Stalin formula, i.e. “those who are not against us are with us.”