Iranian support for protests could backfire in Syria and the Gulf
An opportunistic proponent of the mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, Iran is discovering that they constitute a mixed blessing.
For months, the Islamic republic touted the protests that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and wracked a host of Arab states, including Algeria, Jordan and Bahrain, as the children of its own Islamic revolution that in 1979 overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, one of the United States’ closest allies in the region.
The Iranian government’s playing with fire appeared to pay off after it successfully and brutally quelled protests of its own timed to coincide with celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution. But with Syria, Iran’s closest Arab ally, becoming the latest Arab state to confront mass demonstrations demanding greater freedom and an end to corruption, the protests are again striking close to home.
Iran’s Syrian conundrum comes as its cold war with Saudi Arabia is heating up as a result of protests in the Gulf. The Gulf states are blaming Iran for instigating the unrest; Iran, in turn disapprovingly points to the presence of Saudi forces on the predominantly Shiite Muslim island of Bahrain to protect strategic facilities.
The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—which groups Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates alongside the kingdom—has warned Iran to stop its “provocations.” The GCC has called on the international community and the (UN) Security Council to take necessary measures to stop what it described as “flagrant Iranian interference and provocation aimed at sowing discord and destruction” among GCC nations. The GCC statement was in response to a call by Iran on the Security Council to “put an end to the killing of the people of Bahrain.”
Saudi Arabia separately threatened to recall its diplomats from Tehran unless they were better protected following anti-Saudi demonstrations in Tehran outside the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital.
Several Gulf States reported in recent weeks that they had uncovered Iranian spy cells. Bahrain said earlier this month that it would put two Iranians on trial on charges of spying for Tehran, and Kuwait said it intended to expel Iranian diplomats for alleged links to an Iranian spy ring.
Suspicion of Iranian meddling in Saudi Arabia’s backyard precedes the most recent incidents as well as the protests. Saudi Arabia believes that Iran has long been bent on countering its influence in the Muslim world and has charged that Iran was behind a Shiite revolt in northern Yemen that ended last year. Saudi Arabia also blames Iran for Shiite demonstrations earlier this year in its oil-rich Eastern Province, a stone’s throw away from Bahrain.
The saber rattling suits Iran’s purpose. It allows the Iranian republic to project itself as a revolutionary protector of Shiite Muslim rights across the region. But as with its support for the protests, Iran runs the risk that its policy could backfire if the escalating cold war becomes truly hot and erupts into open hostilities.
Such hostilities could call its bluff and reveal its de facto military weakness as a result of international sanctions.
Iran compensates for its weakness by supporting some of the world’s most lethal guerrilla groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas. Syria plays a key logistical and political role in the Islamic republic’s relationships with the two groups. So far, Iran, confident that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be able to quell the protests against his regime, has opted to use rhetoric and aid rather than non-conventional warfare to aid its Syrian ally as well as needle its Gulf rivals.
Iranian allegations that the United States was behind the Syrian protests were boosted this week by the disclosure in The Washington Post of US diplomatic cables leaked to Wikileaks that revealed US State Department funding of Syrian opposition group.
The report also lends credence to Mr. Assad’s assertion that foreign saboteurs were instigating the protests against his regime. US support focused on a Syrian exile-based satellite television station as well as similar democracy-related projects. “America and its allies are trying to create an Iranian-Arab tension, they seek to sow discord among Shiites and Sunnis... but their plan will fail,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad charged earlier this week.
Iran is walking a thin line in its support for the Arab protests and its concern about the stability of the Assad regime. The question is how far Iran may go in helping it counter the protests. Increased hostility along the Lebanese border that separates Hezbollah from Israel would be one way for Syria and Iran to attempt to distract attention from the protests and focus national passions on an external enemy. To be sure, Hezbollah is a force in its own right rather than a Syrian or Iranian puppet. Yet, it too has much to lose from a demise of the Assad regime.
In a further boost to Iran and a sign of the Middle East’s changing political geography, Egypt moved this week to improve its long tense relations with the Islamic republic. There were reports Tuesday that the Islamic republic had appointed its first ambassador to Egypt since Tehran and Cairo severed ties after Egypt recognized the State of Israel in 1980. At the same time, the Egyptian foreign ministry said that Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby might visit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in a gesture that would signal a more pro-Palestinian foreign policy and closer ties to a group supported by Iran.
The Egyptian diplomatic moves are likely to set off alarm bells in Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv, but may be designed to reposition Egypt as a leader of the Arab world rather than radically alter the country’s past pro-Western foreign policy. If anything, they could contribute to preventing an already volatile period in Middle Eastern history from deteriorating into further open warfare. Israel and Hamas agreed last week to halt tit-for-tat attacks across the Israeli-Gaza border.
By engaging Iran, Egypt may be able to make headway in stalled efforts to negotiate an agreement between Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. Such an agreement could help facilitate an easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and a possible revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])