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Hichem Karoui: Iran and the regional changes
March 31, 2012
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It seems that Iran has enormously profited from the upheaval in the Arab countries at least on one aspect: it has delivered it momentaneously from the international pressure regarding its nuclear programme. Iran has officially welcomed the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt while trying to recuperate them ideologically, pretending they were “Islamic” or “pro-Islamist” revolutions, “anti-imperialist,” “anti-American”  revolutions. This kind of discourse was probably intended for domestic consumption. Yet, those very uprisings the Mullahs have welcomed would boomerang reminding the Iranians that they have not been less abused by their government than the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria: On February 2011, thousands took to the streets in Tehran and other major Iranian cities, demanding democracy and freedom...The protests were quickly silenced. Iran is today the main supporter, with Russia, of the Syrian regime – a position that reveals the duplicity and the irrationalism of its policy.

Prior to the Arab uprisings that expanded from North Africa to reach Syria, Iran – not any Arab country – was under pressure and there were war-drums and much talk about more sanctions.  Wikileaks diplomatic cables have made public what was intended to remain in the secret vaults of diplomacy. Comment from pundits and observers about an “Arab-American conspiracy”  against Iran filled up the TV shows and the press columns.

As the Obama administration was still reluctant to make another presidential doctrine out of another war, Israel seemed well designated and even happy with the eventuality – still possible by the way – of striking Iran, encouraged by the rising fear in the Gulf and the positions of the Arab leaders complaining from Iran’s awkward and adventurous behaviour.

At such a time, a series of uprisings burst out and Ahmadi Nejad was just too happy to welcome those who – involuntarily – relieved him from his greatest worries: to give up the nuclear ambitions or face war. He did not imagine that the revolution would soon rock his most important ally in the region.

That was hardly an advantage, yet a frail one, to be added to some others. As Barbara Slavin put it, “over the past three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has shown remarkable endurance. It has survived an eight-year war with Iraq, mounting economic sanctions, and serious domestic unrest. It has benefited from the missteps of adversaries, which have created opportunities for Iran to expand ties to militant movements in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, and to increase its influence in Afghanistan.”

Iran’s conservative ruling elite proved to be particularly lucky since the day it started leading an adversary course with the United States, opposing plainly its role in the region, for war or peace. This behaviour has become so obviously systematic that some observers talked of a “rivalry” between both states. I do not agree.

This is, for example, the approach of E. Abrahamian (2008) who suggests that “Iran’s emergence as a regional power has brought it into a collision course with the other major powers in the region – the United States, especially with the latter’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as establishment of military bases in the Caucasus and Central Asia, not to mention the earlier ones in Turkey and the Gulf region.” Furthermore, he hypothesises that the US-Iran relations have been “complicated by the fact that Shiites in the region – in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon – look towards Iran as their main protector against local and external threats.” 

However, Abrahamian does not provide evidence in support of his hypothesis. Actually, it would be more plausible to say that Iran since the 1979 revolution, was the self-designated “defender” and the main sponsor of the Shiite sectarianism in the region, as it tried to give substance and scope to its suspicious claims by sponsoring sectarian dissent and luring Shiites into a kind of state-clientelism, whereby Teheran became the “patron” providing money and varied assistance.

In Lebanon, this endeavour gave rise to Hizbollah, which soon became a real state within the state. In Iraq, after the 2003 invasion and the demise of Saddam, the Shiite opponents who were exiled in Iran returned home. They have been during years trained and supported by the Islamic Republic for the main objective of toppling Saddam’s regime and taking over. However, this Iranian interference with the internal problems of its neighbours (also in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain...) might not be considered as a rivalry with the US as much as it is with other regional powers, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Turkey.

I say this for at least two reasons: 1) The Americans knew Iran was sponsoring some Iraqi Shiite groups and the Bush administration all the same helped propel them to power. 2) No matter how we would describe the American presence in the Middle East, the USA would never become an “insider” in the sense of a “regional power.” Sure that the USA is a global super-power, but certainly not a Middle-Eastern regional power.

Hence, it is irrelevant to talk of “rivalry” between the two countries. A rivalry exists, though, but between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Egypt (not with Iraq anymore).

The second aspect of the “US-Iran rivalry” according to Abrahamian, is related to the issue of nuclear energy. He opposes the Iranian insistence on developing such technology, “citing international law, the need to find energy alternatives, and the inalienable right of developing countries” to access the modern world, to the US insistence “that Iran should not be trusted with nuclear technology (...) because its real intention is to develop weapons of mass destruction.”

Here too, it is inappropriate to talk of “US-Iran rivalry,” for admittedly Iran could get a nuclear weapon, which country would feel threatened? The USA or Iran? The balance of power between the two countries is too unfavourable to Iran. Everybody knows it.

The nature of the US-Iran relations is different from the one that characterises the relations between Iran and the Arab neighbours. That is why Iran should be more concerned with pacifying its relations with the Arabs. Yet, its position as supporter of the Syrian regime, condemns Iran to further hostility in the Arab world.

It is no secret that many Arab Sunni consider Iran the main beneficiary from Saddam Hussein’s toppling, since it has extended its influence to the Shiite groups that were unreachable previously. However, Iraq does not represent the “Arab spring.” The hope of democratic and peaceful change is still meeting armed resistance, from Iran, and those who speak the language of “revolution” and “freedom” and perform the role of anti-democratic forces.
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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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