By Mona Moussavi
A full report is available at the end of this piece.
The revolutionary wave of uprisings that has erupted in the Middle East since 17 December 2010 has radically altered the geopolitical makeup of the region. Political systems, national interests, alliances and rivalries have been reassessed. In this new political landscape, Iran, much like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, seeks to fill the vast power vacuum created and advance its regional influence.
Initially, the Iranian regime viewed the Arab uprisings with enthusiasm. Finally pro-Western dictatorships which the Islamic Republic had denounced since its creation were overthrown. The 1979 revolution appeared to have been successfully exported. The rise of Islamist parties could provide Iran’s theocracy a unique opportunity to exert regional hegemony, one of the regime’s long-standing strategic objectives.
A year later, Iran’s enthusiasm has withered into concern and uncertainty. Far from advancing its regional influence, Iran is losing out from the Arab uprisings. Specifically, Iran is losing its ability to exert soft power in the region and stands to lose a key regional ally if the Syrian regime is overthrown. Crucially, I believe this decline was not inevitable; Iran has made a series of mistakes both in its exercise of soft power and its policy towards Syria that have weakened its regional influence considerably.
Soft Power: “Irrelevant Iran”
Firstly, in an effort to render itself relevant to regional developments, Iran has wrongly depicted the Arab uprisings as an Islamic one. According to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, “Islam has become the guiding principle of [the] popular movements.” Worse, Iran claims the protests are rooted in the 1979 revolution as if to assume responsibility for their rise and development: “this Islamic awakening,” said Khamenei last February, “was created by the victory of the great Revolution of the Iranian nation.” Not only are these depictions false but they are insulting to the Arab masses – of all religions – protesting socioeconomic and political hardships unrelated to Iran. Such pronouncements do nothing for Iran’s popularity on the Arab street.
Arab public opinion of Iran matters not only because of the centrality of soft power in Iran’s geopolitical strategy but also because if real democracies are established in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, public opinion will play a greater role in the region than ever before.This is bad news for Tehran. Opposition groups in the Arab world are already distancing themselves from Iran as a result. Immediately after Ayatollah Khamenei’s first speech on the uprisings, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood dismissed his characterization of the protests in a statement saying that the organisation “regards the revolution as the Egyptian people’s revolution, not an Islamic revolution…[it] includes Muslims, Christians and [is] from all sects and political tendencies.”
The double standard Iran has exercised in its response to the Arab uprisings further discredits the regime. As the US has repeatedly underlined, Iran “says it stands for the rights of protesters abroad, yet represses its own people at home.” While Iran criticizes the “inaction of the international community and the Arab League towards brutalities of the Manama regime” and expresses concern over human rights in Bahrain, it continues to support repression not only at home, but also in neighbouring Syria.
Iran’s response to the Syrian Uprising
Not only has Iran gone out of its way to disassociate the Arab uprisings from developments in Syria, it has aided the crackdown on Syrian protestors. Iran’s simultaneous criticism of Saudi Arabia for its “interventionist policies” and “Western meddling in Syrian affairs” illustrates the extent of Iranian double standards.
If Assad’s regime collapses, not only does Iran risk losing its key strategic ally Syria, but also its ability to counter Israel through the millions of dollars in economic aid and supplies channelled to Hezbollah and Hamas through Syria.
While Iran pursues a realpolitik strategy towards Syria, desperate not to lose its key regional ally, it is rapidly losing any appeal it had gained over the past thirty years as an anti-Western, anti-Israeli nation that overthrew the Shah’s autocratic regime. The more Iran supports the brutality of the Syrian government, the more unpopular Iran appears to the Arab street.
While the Iranians did briefly adopt a more balanced public stance towards Syria – in an interview with CNN, for example, President Ahmadinejad stated that Iran would “encourage both the government of Syria and the other side, all parties to reach an understanding” – Iranian policy towards Syria has remained essentially the same. Iran continues to praise Assad’s decision to “undertake [political] reforms” as the “only solution to the…crisis.” Aside from talks on greater economic cooperation in the housing, transport and tourism sectors, crucially, Iran is now aiding Assad to defy Western sanctions.
At some point, Iran will have to reassess its support for Assad. If and when Tehran feels his regime is doomed, Iran will change its stance to influence post-Assad Syria from the best position possible. Given the extent of support it has provided Assad so far, such a shift will most likely prove ineffective; it will be too little too late. If Iran goes on to lose its strongest Arab ally, it will mark a substantial loss in the regional influence and security Iran had enjoyed over the past 30 years.
As for Iran’s soft power status, it is unlikely that this will be regained any time soon. Undoubtedly, Arab public opinion may not play as big a role as some envision following the Arab Awakening. The futures of new regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya remain unclear. Nevertheless, given the centrality of soft power in Iran’s perpetual bid for regional hegemony, the Iranian regime should be concerned that the speeches, statements and responses it makes throughout the Arab uprising are having a negative impact on its image in the region and beyond.
Mona Moussavi graduated from LSE with degrees in History and International Relations. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read her full report, written in Washington, D.C. in December 2011: Iran and the Arab Awakening