The Middle East Channel

Iran’s unwanted revolution

Iran moved quickly to frame the uprisings across the Arab world as an "Islamic Awakening" and as a parallel to its own Islamic Revolution in 1979. But Tehran is visibly shaken by the possibility of regime overthrow in Syria. Despite American efforts to highlight Iranian support for the Syrian regime’s efforts to retain power, in ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Iran moved quickly to frame the uprisings across the Arab world as an "Islamic Awakening" and as a parallel to its own Islamic Revolution in 1979. But Tehran is visibly shaken by the possibility of regime overthrow in Syria. Despite American efforts to highlight Iranian support for the Syrian regime’s efforts to retain power, in fact Tehran has little control over the future of political order in Syria. The turbulence in Syria and Iran’s limited influence have significance beyond the immediate, urgent question of the survival of Bashar al-Assad. It shows powerfully how much Iran’s influence is a function of external developments rather than internal strength — and how that influence might be severely affected by changes in the regional environment beyond its control.

The longer trajectory of Iran’s regional power highlights how deeply losing Syria might affect Tehran. Iranian ascendancy over the last decade has been driven by the weakening of its traditional enemies, not by its own internal development or its own actions. In 2001, U.S.-backed forces ousted the Taliban of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. Thereafter, the United States invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power. These actions together transformed Iran’s two most hostile neighbors into arenas of competition where Iran enjoyed geographic proximity and deep historic ties and could tap into communities of co-religionists. The 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel further amplified Iranian power, as its Lebanese proxy became the first Arab force to be considered to have tied Israel on the battlefield. Similarly, Israel’s continued conflict with the Palestinians, culminating in the 2008-2009 Gaza war, enabled Iran to present itself as the leader of the forces of resistance against Western domination.

Over the course of the past decade, Tehran has proved adept and skillful at exploiting regional conflicts to its benefit — often with the unintended help of its adversaries eager to credit Tehran for their own problems. Its initial response to the uprisings in the Arab world was similarly opportunistic. It initially viewed the regional turbulence as another opportunity to expand Iran’s influence and to advance a narrative of Islamic resistance to Western hegemony. In some cases, like Egypt, the removal of a staunch anti-Iranian leader would allow for better relations with Iran. In others, internal political weakness, factionalization, and instability may provide openings for Iranian interference similar to Iraq post-2003.

Western observers may scoff at Iranian rhetorical support for Arab protest movements as pure realpolitik, a thinly disguised effort to support the downfall of regimes allied with the West. Regrettably, this would be an insufficient reading of the prevalent worldview among Iran’s leadership. One of the core principles of Khomeinism is that the Islamic Republic stands for the defense of the mostazafan — the oppressed. And when current Supreme Leader Khamenei voiced Iran’s support for "all regional uprisings," he explicitly highlighted that the respective Arab demonstrations were "a protest of a nation against its oppression." The core of the Islamic Republic’s leadership seems to truly believe that the uprisings vindicate its foreign policy and align with its principles.

But Iran has been confronted with three inherent contradictions of this position. First, it continued its own internal crackdown on dissidents while Arab revolutions seemed to be vanquishing established regimes in the name of liberty. Second, its proclaimed support for the "people" is incompatible with Western support for the same "people." In other words, since Iran defines itself in opposition to the existing order, Tehran struggles when it finds itself on the same side as the Western powers, as in Egypt, where the international community helped broker the transition away from Hosni Mubarak. Libya has been even more problematic, after the international community authorized military force to protect the civilian population, forcing Iran to attempt the impossible balancing act of proclaiming its solidarity with the rebels while objecting to the actual intervention on their behalf.

But Syria has been by far the most profoundly disconcerting to the Iranian regime. It most vividly exposes Iran’s double standards, even if rumors of large-scale Iranian assistance in suppressing the opposition in Syria are exaggerated. After all, Syrian protesters are unarmed Muslims in defiance of a secular and militarized regime, with reportedly more than 800 people killed so far. They therefore symbolize the mostazafan like few others and should thus be deserving of Iranian support. But clearly, given Syria’s role as Iran’s longest and closest Arab ally, the downfall of the Assad regime would have grave consequences for the projection of Iranian power and Iran’s regional positioning. The turbulence in Syria strikes at the heart of Iran’s claim that the uprisings are directed against Western hegemony, or that popular support for resistance conferred legitimacy on its allies.

Crucially, Iran’s ascendancy has not been a function of its internal strength. On the contrary, Iran remains beset by myriad socioeconomic and political problems. The recent oil price rise cannot hide that Iran’s economic growth model is defunct. In the words of a Tehran-based HSBC analyst, it represents a "lopsided economic model reminiscent of the former Soviet Union." Likewise, its elite politics remain divisive even after a consolidation of power among archconservatives.

In the absence of internal resources, Iran’s foreign policy relies heavily on external assets, notably its partnership with Syria. Syria provides very critical logistical, political, and military support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and provides Iran’s main gateway to relevance in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Without Syria, Hezbollah’s capabilities could deteriorate and be susceptible to defeat in the next round of fighting. Damascus also facilitates Iran’s relations with Hamas, as Syria is (still) the main headquarters of the group outside Gaza. Overall, these points of contact are of extremely high importance as the Arab-Israeli conflict itself is a major foreign-policy asset of Iran on which it builds its legitimacy. Losing direct access to the Arab-Israeli arena would thus be a detrimental blow to Iranian influence.

Damascus also lessens Tehran’s isolation as its only loyal ally in the region. Syria aside, Tehran does not enjoy the trust of any other governments in the region. Even Lebanon and Iraq, with their influential Shiite constituencies, are beholden to the complex sectarian makeup of their polities and therefore constrained in their relations with Iran. Above all, Syrian support creates the veneer of pan-Islamic solidarity and reduces Iran’s Shiite and Persian character, which otherwise sets it apart from most of the Arab world.

Any regime that would follow Assad would likely be less forthcoming toward Iran. By definition, any successor regime would be more reflective of the Sunni majority and resentful of most legacies of the current Alawite-dominated regime, including its close ties with Tehran. Most problematically, Iran lacks an alternative to Syria. There is simply no other regional player interested and able to provide comparable goods. Therefore, if Assad went down, so would Iran’s regional influence. This simple fact should also serve as a reminder for the broader debate on how to deal with Tehran as a regional player, namely, that Iran’s position is less a driver of regional events than a function of those events.

Elliot Hentov recently received his Ph.D. in Middle East studies from Princeton University.