Iran and the Arab Spring: Opportunities and dangers

For the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), the Arab Spring, which it calls the Islamic Awakening, appeared as a tsunami that has been battering away at the authoritarian Sunni regimes underpinning the American order in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). When popular protests spread from Tunisia, where they had begun in December 2010, to Egypt in January 2011, Iran saw a historic opportunity to advance its position in the Arab world. After NATO’s intervention of Gadhafi’s severe retaliatory measures against  anti-government demonstrations in Libya, Iran’s perception of the Arab Spring became tinted with greater caution. Then when large numbers of people took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the ruling Bashar al-Assad regime, Iran sensed that its much vaunted “Islamic Awakening” was ripe with both great opportunities- and dangers. 

The MENA region appears on the precipice of profound changes that will reshape the balance of power for the IRI and its competitors. These changes range from Egypt, where Iran has seen the vanquishing of a despised foe in the Hosni Mubarak regime, to Syria, where Iran’s bridge to the Levant and Israel-Palestine is threatened. Let us look at each case in some greater depth:

 Opportunities: Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen 

From the perspective of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his supporters, the Arab Spring is the fulfillment of their vision of an Islamic Middle East which Khamenei had advocated instead of the US Greater Middle East since February 2010 [1]. According to this line of thinking, political Islam will become a much greater force in the region- to Iran’s benefit. The biggest prize so far has been the fall of the Mubarak regime, which was a pillar of US and Israeli policy in the region. Furthermore, as the most populous and historically significant Arab country, Egypt is also seen by Iran as a conduit through which it can enhance its influence in the Arab World. The two most significant Arab movements of the second-half of the 20th century, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb’s Muslim Brotherhood, originated in Egypt. Furthermore when Egypt made war on Israel, so did the entire Arab World, and when Egypt made peace, the united front against Israel collapsed. As goes Egypt, so does the Arab World, and Iran will do all it can to support the rise of Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, through elections and other means to accentuate its own power.

Bahrain is also potentially positive, if more sensitive, case for Iran: It is a Shia majority country (over 70%), home of the US Fifth Fleet, and right off the coast of Saudi Arabia’s Shia oil producing Eastern Province. The failure of the US to condemn the al-Khalifa regime’s violent crackdown on Shia protestors, and Saudi Arabia’s military intervention, undermined US legitimacy and discourse of democracy promotion in the region. While Iran was likely not initially involved in the uprising in Bahrain, the actions of the Bahraini government and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and inaction of the US have created very fertile ground for it to foster friendly forces, and raise its profile in the tiny but strategically significant island country. In Bahrain however, Iran has to walk a very fine line between undermining its regional rival Saudi Arabia, and not provoking a strong reaction from the US. middle path may be supporting the moderate Shia al-Wefaq party, which advocates reform. Iran is also aware, however, that if the path of elections and reform fail, Bahraini Shia frustration is good material to create a Hezbollah-like group that will take up arms and bring change through violence.

In Yemen too, Iran faces an opportunity which is laced with potential dangers. Yemen is nearly half Shia, borders Saudi Arabia in the south, and is a strategic US ally in the region. In Yemen, Iran has helped foster the al-Houthirebels in the north who have clashed with the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime over a range of issues including socio-economic marginalization, political representation and foreign policy. While the outcome of the struggle for power in Yemen is as of yet uncertain, it is not unlikely that a new government would give Shias in Yemen a greater voice and the al-Houthis more power, weakening that country’s strong relations with both the US and Saudi Arabia.

 While the victory of Shias and pro-Iranian forces in Bahrain and Yemen is unpredictable, the Arab Spring has revealed cracks that Iran can widen to increase its own influence. Iran could use its enhanced influence to create a pincer on Saudi Arabia’s sensitive Shia oil-producing Eastern Province and internally weaken that country. In order to side-step US sensitivity, Iran could use elections and the political system to strengthen its Shia allies in Bahrain and Yemen and enhance its own role in those countries. It would eschew the use of violence until it felt that elections and politics no longer fulfilled its aims.

 Dangers: Libya and Syria 

As much as the Arab Spring has presented opportunities for Iran in Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, it has also created potential dangers in Libya and Syria. While Iran was initially happy to see the uprising against Gadhafi, NATO’s humanitarian military intervention raised alarm bells in Tehran. Hopes that Libya would become a quagmire for NATO and the Transitional National Council (TNC) appear to have been subdued by the rebel victory in Tripoli. The main threat posed by a pro-Western government in Libya may be the strategic resourcefulness of its oil for the West. But nothing is yet certain, least of all whether the TNC and rebel fighters can form a united front to establish a new government. In particular, Iran could fuel differences within the TNC and rebel fighters and back one group to prevent the formation of a wholly pro-Western government, as well as enhance its own interests.

Iran will be sure to keep its eye on Libya- not because it sees an opening to act- but rather because of similar protests rocking its key ally in the region Syria. The specter of humanitarian military intervention hangs over Syria as it is accused of killing over two thousand of its citizens [2], and imprisoning thousands more, in a bid to put down the rebellion against the al-Assad regime. While Iran will no doubt back the regime to the end, as already it’s rumored to be providing aid to Syria’s security forces, the refusal of protestors to back down and the potential threat of a humanitarian military intervention in Syria have pushed Iran to call Assad to implement political reforms [3]. The loss of Syria could be potentially devastating for Iran, resulting in the loss of its main regional ally, a land bridge to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and a platform to attack Israel, creating a great deal of volatility in what comes next.

The fact that the West and the Sunni Arab regimes have taken months to begin pressuring al-Assad to step down reflects consternation about what may come next, and the instability it may create. Despite little love being lost between them and Syria, it’s always easier to deal with the devil you know. This same consternation may be reflected in Iraq’s decision to support al-Assad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to back the current regime in Syria may also reflect the fear that should al-Assad fall it could become a haven for Sunni religious extremists and destabilize Iraq’s northern border. This is the same fear that is likely passing through the mind of the West and Sunni Arab leaders as they contemplate what to do next in Syria.

 Toward a new equilibrium in the Middle East and North Africa

While it may be too early to tell, the Arab Spring could change the dynamics of the MENA region in Iran’s favour. The increasing power of Islamists in Egypt, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood which has good ties with Iran today, may mean that Iran’s Islamic Middle East paradigm may not be so farfetched. Such a shift would also strengthen Hamas in Gaza which would become a more accepted and mainstream political force and weaken Israel which Iran views as its main regional rival.

The opportunities in Bahrain and Yemen would also allow Iran to begin to dismantle the US order in the Persian Gulf from within, as already noted above. Additionally, with Qatar becoming an increasingly important and independent player in the region (for example, see its recent role in Libya [4]), it may decide to distance itself from the anti-Iranian GCC, creating room for Iran’s diplomacy.

While a successful model of multilateral humanitarian military intervention, which entails minimal economic, military and political cost for the West, certainly scares Iran (especially as it could eventually be used against Syria and Iran), Libya is still far from being a success. Even if the regime in Syria falls, it is uncertain what will come next and Iran could shift its regional strategy to place greater emphasis on Iraq, and facilitate aid to Hezbollah and Hamas by sea and through Egypt. In the best case scenario for Iran: al-Assad survives, but as a cornered and wounded animal, is pushed completely into Iran’s arms. What Syria has revealed is the potential for Turkey to play a greater role in the region and act as a check against Iran’s growing power, recently highlighted by several hostile comments by Iranian officials against Turkey [5].

After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 the IRI firmly established the notion that it was the centre of an anti-imperialist Islamic struggle against the US and Israel in the MENA, fostering militant Islamist groups which challenged the status-quo. After the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1988), death of the revolution’s leader the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1989), and collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), Iran began the transition to a classical statist power. Its partners, the militant Islamist groups, became social movements with armed wings and entered politics, becoming legitimate mainstream actors. While Iran paid a high price for challenging the US order in the region, especially through sanctions, it may now be in the position to reap the rewards for its policies. However, the Arab Spring poses both opportunities and dangers for Iran, and it is too soon to tell where Iran will come out in the new balance of power in the region.