Since the first days of the Arab uprisings, United States and Iranian competition for influence in the Middle East has drastically intensified as each seeks to leverage to its benefit the regional shift precipitated by the Arab Spring. For the first few months, it appeared that Iran would emerge a clear winner. However, Iran’s ability to project power in the region has since been challenged significantly by Saudi rivalry, Syrian unrest, and domestic discord.
When Mubarak’s regime fell, a key Iranian rival in the region was eliminated, and the prospects for continued Egyptian-Israeli peace immediately became uncertain. Uprisings such as the one in Egypt have threatened or overthrown Western-friendly, Sunni regimes, where popular opinion aligns more with Iranian ideology than U.S. interests. Furthermore, regime turnover has not been smooth throughout the region. Weak fledgling government systems seemed to offer a perfect opportunity for Iran to develop ties with non-state actors and spread its ideology among frustrated Arab citizens. Iran clearly believed its image in the region had received a boost when it sent warships through the Suez Canal last February, indicating a clear willingness to behave more assertively.
But the fall or paralysis of Bashar al-Assad in Syria—each a distinct possibility—would deal a critical blow to Iran’s ability to project power in the Levant. Syria is Iran’s single Arab ally, and it facilitates Iran’s partnerships with Hezbollah and Hamas. Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey of Foreign Affairs explain that Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah are “less a coherent bloc than a temporary coalition in which local and short-term tactical interests have always trumped ideological or religious affinity.” Damascus serves as the intersection for these partnerships, so as Syrian unrest intensifies and as each bloc member faces increasing domestic pressure, their respective agendas are less likely to converge. Syria will remain internally focused in the near term, and Hamas is eager to reunify with Fatah and transition from its insecure Syrian base. Such dynamics in Syria threaten to undermine Iran’s influence. If Assad’s regime is toppled, it likely will be replaced by a Sunni government less inclined to align with Iran. However, should Assad cling to power, he will find himself further isolated in the region and estranged from the international community, possibly making him more reliant on Iran.
Regardless of Syria’s future, Iran’s response to Syrian upheaval has tarnished its image throughout the region. New York Times journalist Robert Worth described a recent Iranian conference on the “Islamic Awakening,” which noticeably lacked Syrian invitees. Iran’s support of Assad and its brutal repression of Iran’s opposition in 2009 were not lost on some delegates there, who openly chanted the slogan of Syrian protestors. Iran’s policies are inconsistent: it applauds uprisings that toppled regimes hostile to it, insisting that these revolutions are an extension of the Iranian Revolution; however, when it comes to Syria, Ahmadinejad accuses the West and Israel of fomenting opposition there as well as in Iran. This hypocrisy is clear to the Arab world.
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s decision to deploy 1,000 Saudi troops to Bahrain to crush anti-government protests there demonstrated its commitment to containing Iran in the Gulf, as Iran sought to bolster those protestors. Bahrain is extremely important to Saudi Arabia, which views Iran as its largest rival, and to the U.S.—Bahrain houses the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, viewed as a key component of U.S. strategy in dealing with Iran. Saudi and American interests in Bahrain will be difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to overcome in vying for control there. What’s more, Bahraini Shia leaders have criticized Iran’s hegemonic goals, while Shia parliamentarians protested Iran’s territorial claims to Bahrain.
Senior Research Fellow at The New America Foundation Afshin Molavi explains that additional constraints on Iranian power projection radiate from within. He argues that uprisings could reignite in Iran, which faces mounting unemployment and a youth bulge similar to Arab Spring locales. Molavi describes the many “young and middle-aged men and women…crowded by a government that puts obstacles in their way rather than empowering them, suffering the indignities of chronic unemployment, underemployment, and a deteriorating economy.” He chillingly concludes, “The Muhamed Bouazizis of Iran are burning.” Given Iran’s sophisticated surveillance capabilities and willingness to repress dissent, the Green Movement will face an uphill battle. However, the more Iran resorts to repressive tactics to crush dissent, the more it loses public support throughout the Middle East.
As the Arab Spring unfolds, it is increasingly clear that Iran has much to overcome in expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. Even Arab Shias, like those in Bahrain, do not align with Iran as much as many assumed they would, often seeking the guidance of Iraqi and Lebanese clerics instead of Iran’s. If Iran cannot become the single spiritual and political beacon to the Arab Shia community, it stands little chance of leading the Sunni Arab majority.