An expert's point of view on a current event.

Obama Is Helping Iran

How Washington's awkward handling of Middle East uprisings is playing into the hands of the Islamic Republic.


We take billionaire financier George Soros up on the bet he proffered to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria this week that "the Iranian regime will not be there in a year’s time." In fact, we want to up the ante and wager that not only will the Islamic Republic still be Iran’s government in a year’s time, but that a year from now, the balance of influence and power in the Middle East will be tilted more decisively in Iran’s favor than it ever has been.

Just a decade ago, on the eve of the 9/11 attacks, the United States had cultivated what American policymakers like to call a strong "moderate" camp in the region, encompassing states reasonably well-disposed toward a negotiated peace with Israel and strategic cooperation with Washington: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states, as well as Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. On the other side, the Islamic Republic had an alliance of some standing with Syria, as well as ties to relatively weak militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Other "radical" states like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya were even more isolated.

Fast-forward to the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president of the United States, in January 2009. As a result of the Iraq war, the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and some fairly astute diplomacy by Iran and its regional allies, the balance of influence and power across the Middle East had shifted significantly against the United States. Scenarios for "weaning" Syria away from Iran were becoming ever more fanciful as relations between Damascus and Tehran became increasingly strategic in quality. Turkey, under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), was charting a genuinely independent foreign policy, including strategically consequential partnerships with Iran and Syria. Hamas and Hezbollah, legitimated by electoral successes, had emerged as decisively important political actors in Palestine and Lebanon. It was looking progressively less likely that post-Saddam Iraq would be a meaningful strategic asset for Washington and ever more likely that Baghdad’s most important relationships would be with Iran, Syria, and Turkey. And, increasingly, U.S. allies like Oman and Qatar were aligning themselves with the Islamic Republic and other members of the Middle East’s "resistance bloc" on high-profile issues in the Arab-Israeli arena — as when the Qatari emir flew to Beirut a week after the 2006 Lebanon war to pledge massive reconstruction assistance to Hezbollah strongholds in the south and publicly defended Hezbollah’s retention of its military capabilities.

On Obama’s watch, the regional balance of influence and power has shifted even further away from the United States and toward Iran and its allies. The Islamic Republic has continued to deepen its alliances with Syria and Turkey and expand its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Public opinion polls, for example, continue to show that the key leaders in the Middle East’s resistance bloc — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Lebanon’s Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas’s Khaled Mishaal, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — are all vastly more popular across the region than their counterparts in closely U.S.-aligned and supported regimes in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia.

And, now, the Obama administration stands by helplessly as new openings for Tehran to reset the regional balance in its favor emerge in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and perhaps elsewhere. If these "pro-American" Arab political orders currently being challenged or upended by significant protest movements become at all more representative of their populations, they will no doubt become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States. And, if these "pro-American" regimes are not replaced by salafi-dominated Islamist orders, the Arab governments that emerge from the present turmoil are likely to be at least somewhat receptive to Iran’s message of "resistance" and independence from Israel and the West.

Certainly, any government in Cairo that is even mildly more representative than Hosni Mubarak’s regime will not be willing to keep collaborating with Israel to enforce the siege of Gaza or to continue participating in the CIA’s rendition program to bring Egyptians back to Egypt to be tortured. Likewise, any political order in Bahrain that respected the reality of that country’s Shiite-majority population would be firmly opposed to the use of its territory as a platform for U.S. military action against Iranian interests.

Over the next year, all these developments will shift the regional balance even more against the United States and in favor of Iran. If Jordan — a loyal U.S. client state — were to come into play during this period, that would tilt things even further in Iran’s direction.

Against this, Soros, other American elites, the media, and the Obama administration all assert that the wave of popular unrest that is taking down one U.S. ally in the Middle East after another will now bring down the Islamic Republic — and perhaps the Assad government in Syria, too. This is truly a triumph of wishful thinking over thoughtful analysis.

Many of these same actors, of course, worked themselves up into quite a frenzy after the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election. For months, we were subjected to utterly unsubstantiated claims that the election had been stolen and that the Green Movement would sweep aside the Iranian "regime." Like Soros today, many pundits who predicted the Islamic Republic’s demise in 2009 or 2010 put various time frames on their predictions — all of which, to the best of our knowledge, have passed without the Iranian system imploding. (But don’t worry about the devastating impact of such egregious malpractice on the careers of those who proved themselves so manifestly incompetent at Iran analysis. In today’s accountability-free America, every one of the Iran "experts" who were so wrong about the Green Movement in 2009 and 2010 is back at it again.)

From literally the day after Iran’s 2009 presidential election, we pointed out that the Green Movement could not succeed in bringing down the Islamic Republic, for two basic reasons: The movement did not represent anything close to a majority of Iranian society, and a majority of Iranians still support the idea of an Islamic Republic. Two additional factors are in play today, which make it even less likely that those who organized and participated in scattered demonstrations in Iran over the past week will be able to catalyze "regime change" there.

First, what is left of the Green Movement represents an even smaller portion of Iranian society than it did during the summer and fall of 2009. The failures of defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to convincingly document their assertions of electoral fraud and the Green Movement’s pivotal role in the West’s progressive demonization of the Islamic Republic since June 2009 have not played well with most Iranians inside Iran. That’s why, for example, former President Mohammad Khatami has quietly distanced himself from what is left of the Green Movement — as has every reformist politician who wants to have a political future in the Islamic Republic. As a result of these highly consequential miscalculations by the opposition’s ostensible leaders, those who want to try again to organize a mass movement against the Islamic Republic have a much smaller pool of troops that they might potentially be able to mobilize. This is not a winning hand, even in an era of Facebook and Twitter.

Second, the effort to restart protests in Iran is taking place at a moment of real strategic opportunity for Tehran in the Middle East. The regional balance is shifting, in potentially decisive ways, in favor of the Islamic Republic and against its American adversary. In this context, for Mousavi and Karroubi to call their supporters into the streets on Feb. 14 — just three days after the Obama administration had started issuing its own exhortations for Iranians to revolt against their government and as Obama and his national security team reeled from the loss of Mubarak, America’s longtime ally in Egypt — was an extraordinary blunder.

The Iranian people are not likely to recognize as their political champions those whom they increasingly perceive as working against the national interest. Two of Ahmadinejad’s most prominent conservative opponents — former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Revolutionary Guard commander and presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai — have publicly and severely criticized Mousavi and Karroubi over their recent actions and statements. Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, another Ahmadinejad opponent, told his colleagues last week, "The parliament condemns the Zionists, American, anti-revolutionary, and anti-national action of the misled seditionists," accusing the two Green Movement leaders of falling into "the orchestrated trap of America."

U.S. attempts to intervene in the Islamic Republic’s internal politics are typically maladroit and often backfire. But the Obama administration’s performance is setting new standards in this regard. Among other consequences, the administration’s latest initiative to stir up unrest in Iran will put what is left of the reform camp in Iranian politics at an even bigger disadvantage heading into parliamentary elections next year and the Islamic Republic’s next presidential election in 2013, because reformists are now in danger of being associated with an increasingly marginalized and discredited opposition movement that is, effectively, doing America’s bidding.

At a more strategic level, the Obama administration’s post-Ben Ali, post-Mubarak approach to Iran is putting important U.S. interests in serious jeopardy. It is putting at risk, first of all, the possibility of dealing constructively with an increasingly influential Islamic Republic in Iran. More broadly, at precisely the time when the United States needs to figure out how to deal with legitimate, genuinely independent Islamist movements and political orders, which are the most likely replacements for "pro-American" autocracies across the Middle East, the Obama administration’s approach to Iran is taking U.S. policy in exactly the opposition direction.

The United States faces serious challenges in the Middle East. Its strategic position in this vital part of the world is eroding before our eyes. Indulging in fantasies about regime change in Iran will only make the situation worse.

Flynt Leverett teaches international affairs at Pennsylvania State University and is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. Hillary Mann Leverett teaches international affairs at Yale and American University. Together, they write