As upheaval sweeps the Middle East, optimists have hoped that Iran would soon follow Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In fact, the opposite has happened. As shown by its audacious decision to dispatch warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in 31 years, the Iranian leadership expects to emerge from the regional turmoil further entrenched and emboldened.
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. Tehran is revelling in analogies between Egypt and Tunisia, and its own revolutionary inception. And despite the resurgence of the “green movement” opposition, Iranian leaders remain confident about their ability to beat back dissent and buy off a conflict-weary population.
They are also savvy enough to recognise that those new Arab leaders who emerge are likely to trumpet nationalist sentiments, and are unlikely to embrace the Islamic Republic. Still, regime change will inevitably produce governments that are less compliant to Washington, and less hostile to Tehran. The American experiment in Iraq has taught Iran’s ageing revolutionaries that the eviction of an old antagonist is more than sufficient for the purposes of enhancing influence.
Moreover, the uncertainty that is an unfortunate offshoot of the dramatic changes is further conducive to Iran’s interests. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad is a well-practised ideological entrepreneur, with a record of winning Arab hearts and minds through an ugly blend of populism, paranoia and prejudice. The distrust of Washington proclaimed by many protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere will be ripe for Iranian manipulation. Through persuasive anti-American rhetoric and financial support (both for disaffected groups and hardline Islamists) Tehran is now likely to seek to sabotage any Arab transitions to a more liberal order.
Elsewhere the picture is no less positive. Iran’s fellow Shias in Bahrain are drawing worldwide sympathy after a brutal crackdown by the Sunni king. Its proxy, Hizbollah, has taken over the prime ministerial slot in Lebanon; its Syrian ally has so far weathered the storm without a hitch. Libya is enmeshed in violent chaos. Post-Saddam Iraq remains fertile ground for Iranian influence.
Meanwhile, the only meaningful American allies left standing in the region – Saudi Arabia, and the other smaller Gulf states – suddenly seem out of step with Washington, and are looking nervously inward. Instead of the creeping isolation that President Barack Obama’s administration has sought to impose, Iran’s regional prospects suddenly look downright expansive.
The priorities that have animated American regional policy for three decades – advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process, countering violence and extremism, energy security and protecting US allies – is now much more challenging to advance. Without lifting a finger, the Islamic Republic has seen US capabilities weaken across the entire Middle East.
Most importantly for Tehran, all the leverage the US administration has sought as a means of pressuring Tehran to constrain its nuclear programme now looks ephemeral. Sanctions will continue to pinch, but high oil prices and a newly hospitable regional environment will enable an ever more recalcitrant Islamic Republic to evade international demands to curtail its enrichment programme.
Though it has neither inspired the Arab unrest nor conspired to advance it, Iran will be the main beneficiary of regional instability, just as it was in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. Eventually the force of democratic activism will overcome the regime’s capacity for repression. Unfortunately this may take a long time, while Mr Obama’s administration faces a dilemma over its next steps today. And when the smokes clears, it may well find that Iran, not democracy, is the real victor from this Arab spring.