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As the Middle East reshuffles, Iran could end up the biggest loser

A garbage container is set on fire as Iranian protesters stage an anti-government demonstration, under the pretext of rallies supporting Arab uprisings, in Tehran on February 14, 2011.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Iran looks smug and why not?

Most analysts are hailing the wave of pro-democracy movements in the Arab world as a boon for the Islamic Republic.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would cast the uprisings as a push to rid the region of U.S. and Israeli influence. The passage of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal last month, shortly after the departure from power of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, was supposed to be the dawn of a new era.

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But while Tehran might be pleased to see the back of its nemesis, Mr. Mubarak, and might enjoy watching the Sunni royal family in Bahrain squirm from protests by the country's majority Shia population, Iran should be worried. Syria's al-Assad regime, Iran's greatest ally in the Arab world, is on the ropes. If President Bashar al-Assad fails to quell growing protests, his government, controlled by members of the minority Alawi sect, might not be long for this world. Should it collapse, so too will widespread support for Iran.

And Tehran should also be concerned on the domestic front. The popular discontent that led to 2009's unsuccessful Green Revolution could still pose a mortal threat to the regime.

Iran's method of operation always has been political outreach, particularly in the Muslim world, and Syria is pivotal to that process. Lebanon's militant Shia group, Hezbollah, is supplied and serviced by Iran mostly through Syria, and the Palestinian militant Islamic movement, Hamas, another Iranian beneficiary, is headquartered in Damascus. A diminishing of Tehran's relationship with Syria will set back Iranian interests considerably.

Its casualties in this Arab Spring don't end there.

Libya also has been a big ally of Iran. In the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Tripoli broke Arab ranks and sided with Tehran in that conflict. If the Moammar Gadhafi regime falls, Iran will have one less iron in the political fire.

Lebanese-American analyst Fouad Ajami once explained how Damascus had so much influence: "Syria's main asset, in contrast to Egypt's pre-eminence and Saudi wealth, is its capacity for mischief," he said. The same could be said about Libya under Mr. Gadhafi, and even about Iran.

Certainly the trio have considerable capacity for making trouble, especially finding ways to keep the region's people focused on what Iran refers to as the Great Satan (the United States) and the Little Satan (Israel.) Some suggest that's exactly what is happening these days with the sudden eruption of violence between Hamas and Israel - an effort to get Syrians focused on the Israeli enemy.

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It is true that Iran has benefited in certain ways by the Arab world's upheavals. The international campaign against its apparent ambition to develop nuclear weapons has been all but forgotten, and the interim military authority in Egypt did send a conciliatory signal to Tehran after years of Mr. Mubarak's hostility.

Relations might indeed improve, but competition with Egypt for regional primacy will certainly intensify, says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"Tehran's ascent in the Arab world over the last decade has been partly attributable to Cairo's decline," Mr. Sadjadpour wrote recently. "The potential re-emergence of a proud, assertive Egypt will undermine Shiite Persian Iran's ambitions to be the vanguard of the largely Sunni Arab Middle East.

"Indeed, if Egypt can create a democratic model that combines political tolerance, economic prosperity and adept diplomacy, Iran's model of intolerance, economic malaise and confrontation will hold little appeal in the Arab world."

In Iraq, a country in which Iran has invested a great deal of political capital, Iranian meddling has come under fire - as Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Iraqi Shia leader, found out recently when he tried and failed to dampen a massive public protest.

Radical leaders such as Mr. al-Sadr, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal have been major recipients of Iranian support. But, as Mr. Sadjadpour points out, they may "find themselves in the awkward position of being a resistance group purportedly fighting injustice while simultaneously cashing cheques from a patron that is brutally suppressing justice at home."

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Efraim Halevy, former head of the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency, thinks that we've seen the high-water mark for Iran's influence. "The basic fact is that Shiites are in a minority," he said.

On its home front, Iran knows only too well that regimes can fall as a result of street protests. That's exactly how the Iranian regime came to power, via the street protests and internal wrangling of 1978-79.

To this point, Iran's old regime has succeeded in keeping the new revolutionaries at bay. In part, that is because the regime still has great numbers of zealous supporters, particularly among the lower and working classes.

(American analyst Patrick Cockburn has noted that this is because the "revolutions" in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s were really military coups, while Iran experienced a genuine revolution, an event that involved authentic popular support.)

It's also because of carefully calibrated violent suppression and the stifling of a free press.

Despite Mr. Ahmadinejad's cockiness in applauding the Arab world's protests, his actions betray his unease. While the Iranian President claimed that the Arab states were belatedly catching up to Iran's Islamic revolution, he himself moved quickly to arrest Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, Iran's protest leaders. The majority of the members of the Iranian parliament called for executing the two men.

Michel de Salaberry, a former Canadian ambassador to both Iran and Egypt, believes that the Arab protesters are trying to emulate Iranian actions, but not the revolution of 1979. Rather, he says, they are following the lead set by Mr. Moussavi and Mr. Karroubi, who staged massive peaceful protests after suspicious election returns in 2009. "That's where all this started," said Mr. de Salaberry, who was in Iran at the time. The regime is very worried, he believes, that the Arab streets will reinspire Iranian protesters. And those streets, both in Arab countries and Iran, are filled with young people, educated and out of work.

Iran is indeed vulnerable, Mr. Sadjadpour says. It "can inspire and champion the region's downtrodden and dispossessed, but not the upwardly mobile." And they're the people, bulging in numbers, who have an appointment with destiny.

Patrick Martin is The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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