Iran tried to take advantage of the Arab Spring. It failed, miserably.
- By Colin KahlColin H. Kahl is an associate professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. In 2011, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service by Secretary Robert Gates. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two children. Kahl is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
One year ago today, Egyptians took to the streets to demand the removal of Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade-old dictatorship. As they waved flags and chanted for the fall of the regime, another ruler 1,200 miles to the east was calculating how to use their act of courage for his own profit. On Feb. 4, at the height of the protests in Tahrir Square, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the stage in Tehran to deliver his assessment of the revolutionary moment unfolding in Cairo.
Speaking partly in Arabic, Khamenei described events in Egypt as an "Islamic awakening" inspired by Iran’s own 1979 revolution. The speech was blasted out to thousands of Egyptians via text message, and Khamenei even claimed on his webpage to have personally inspired the pro-democracy demonstrations, comparing them to "the yell that the Iranian nation let out against America and against global arrogance and tyranny."
Khamenei was not alone in predicting that the Arab Spring would provide Iran an opportunity to expand its influence across the Middle East. Early on, some Washington commentators fretted that he may be right. Writing in Foreign Affairs, for example, Michael Scott Doran, a former official in President George W. Bush’s administration, cautioned that the "resistance bloc" led by Tehran was "poised to pounce, jackal-like, on the wounded states of the region." And, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset as recently as October that he doubted the "high hopes that blossomed in the Arab Spring" would be realized, arguing that Iran would manipulate events to expand its influence.
But even at the time, Khamenei’s assertions fell on deaf ears among the hundreds of thousands risking their lives in Tahrir Square. When asked about Khamenei’s boastful claims, one Tahrir protester mocked: "Egyptians were not inspired by Iran. Rather, the Egyptian people are inspiring the world." This proved a much more astute observation than the supreme leader’s. As Foreign Policy‘s own Marc Lynch documents in his compelling new book, The Arab Uprising, the 2011 revolts in Egypt and elsewhere were inspired by decades-old grievances against corrupt regimes and the mutually reinforcing demonstration effects of simultaneous movements rising up across the Arab world. Iran had nothing to do with it.
The reaction in Tahrir Square represented a sign of things to come. Iran has tried to exploit events, but the winds of political change have not blown in Tehran’s favor.
When Mubarak fell, Iran’s leaders moved out with swagger. They saw one pivotal U.S. ally gone, and perceived an opportunity to exploit unrest to undermine other pro-Western regimes, especially Saudi Arabia. They sought to develop contacts with Islamists in Egypt and Libya, expand ties to opposition movements in Yemen, and capitalize on the indigenous Shiite protests in Bahrain. And Iran’s leaders seemed confident that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Tehran’s state ally in the Middle East, was immune from the populist wave because of its militant stance toward Israel and the United States.
One year later, however, it is hard to find evidence that Iran has benefited from the Arab uprisings. In fact, Iran’s regional position has taken a big hit. With the partial exception of Yemen, Tehran has struggled to build new networks of influence with emerging Islamist actors. Meanwhile, Assad’s regime has been thoroughly delegitimized, expelled from the Arab League, and is wobbling in the face of nationwide protests. This, in turn, has created considerable anxiety for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that constitutes Iran’s chief non-state ally.
The perception of Iranian meddling has also decimated Tehran’s "soft power" appeal across the Arab world. Surveys conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates by Zogby International show Iran’s reputation in free fall since the Arab Spring began. Just a few years ago, Iran enjoyed a strong majority of support among the populations of all these countries; as of July 2011, Iran had a net unfavorable rating in every country but Lebanon.
This is not just a temporary setback for Iran, but a sea change that could deeply undermine its regional ambitions. To be sure, the trajectory of the Arab Spring remains uncertain, and rising sectarian tensions and political backsliding in some countries may provide opportunities for Tehran to cause mischief. But several underlying dynamics suggest that Iran’s struggles will continue.
As Arab publics increasingly look to their own governments to represent their interests, Iran’s ability to leverage regional discontent to influence the Arab street will continue to wane. Moreover, emerging political actors vying for influence and votes in an increasingly populist landscape, including both secular parties and Sunni Arab Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will be keen to brandish their Arab nationalist credentials and will be reluctant to forge close associations with Tehran. Within hours of Mubarak’s fall, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman was already taking pains to emphasize that "Egypt is not Iran. Egypt can build its own model of democracy according to its culture and Islamic preference."
The Iranian regime’s brutal response to its own 2009 protest movement puts further limits on its influence over the Arab Spring. The regime’s refusal to respect universal rights, while claiming to back democratic movements across the Middle East, is irrefutable evidence of hypocrisy. And Iran’s continued support for the Syrian regime’s bloody tactics — at the very moment that Assad faces growing pressure from fellow Arab states and Turkey to end the violence and step aside — only magnifies this double standard.
Classic balance of power dynamics have also triggered extensive pushback from Tehran’s regional rivals. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, combined with widespread concerns of Iranian-backed subversion, have motivated unprecedented arms purchases and security cooperation among the Arab Gulf states. Exaggerated perceptions of Iranian meddling also produced the ill-advised Saudi intervention into Bahrain last March. In the face of perceived Iranian threats, Saudi Arabia and its allies are likely to continue to circle the wagons.
Lastly, as the prospects of Assad’s political survival in Syria continue to dim, so do Iran’s hopes for regional supremacy. For years, Iran’s close alliance with Syria has provided it with a platform to exert influence in the Arab world, and a base from which to funnel support to militant Lebanese and Palestinian organizations threatening Israel. But with the pro-democracy movement in Syria persisting in the face of severe repression and Assad’s regime facing international estrangement, Iran’s most critical alliance is increasingly tenuous.
If Assad falls, Iran may attempt to compensate by doubling down in Iraq. But the susceptibility of Iraq’s Shiite-led government to Iranian hegemony is widely exaggerated and Iraq cannot replace Syria as a gateway to the Levant. Iraqi nationalism is profound and local distrust of Iran, a country Iraq waged the bloodiest war of the late twentieth century against, runs deep. Iraq also desires a long-term partnership with the United States and improved relations with its Arab neighbors — goals that are incompatible with Iranian domination.
One year after the Egyptian revolution began, Khamenei’s hopes — and Western analysts’ fears — have not materialized, and are not likely to. Although it has been fashionable to describe Iran’s growing power in the Middle East, actual events suggest the opposite. Iran’s economy is reeling under sanctions, and the regime’s nuclear activities and saber-rattling increasingly mark it as a pariah state. And as the Arab Spring marches on, Iran will find itself falling further behind.