Iran’s Islamic Republic is losing out from the Arab awakening, writes Marlène Laruelle. The regime is not only facing domestic unrest due to the economic impact of sanctions, but is also likely to find itself isolated to an extent unprecedented in its recent history.
The 2011-12 popular uprisings in the Arab world have contributed to undermining Iran’s position in the Middle East. Moderate spillovers of popular frustration toward authoritarian regimes took place in Iran against the political system. These actions refreshed, but failed to fully revive, the revolutionary ‘Green Movement’ that followed the disputed victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against liberal opposition candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in 2009.
In 2011, Tehran’s initial welcoming of an ‘Islamic awakening’ in the Arab world as a means to strengthen a pan-Islamic, anti-American axis in the region quickly faded. Emerging Arab Islamist governments sought to strengthen the Sunni axis rather than the pan-Islamic one. The resumption of formal ties between Iran and Egypt after three decades of rupture was very significant in symbolic terms, but it is not likely to do much to prevent the overall drop in support for Iran in the region.
On his first visit to Tehran, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi unequivocally stated Egypt’s support for the Syrian revolutionaries, not the Assad regime. Although Riyadh initially interpreted the uprisings as a threat to its own rule, victories at the polls for Arab Islamists may in the end turn out to be a win for conservative Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia. The political stakes of regime changes in the Middle East thus overlap in part with Sunni-Shia competition patterns, especially in the Gulf region.
Iran’s perception of being threatened by Sunni advances has been strengthened by the demonstrations that rocked Bahrain, where a Shiite majority is essentially governed by a Sunni minority, as well as by the ambiguous position of the United Arab Emirates, which has a large Iranian expatriate population and extensive economic ties with Iran.
With the Assad regime set to fall in Syria, Iran looks likely to lose its most faithful ally in the region. In the meantime, a pattern of balkanization is emerging in Syria, as the different actors rapidly fragment into multiple groups. The country now faces a potential split of its territory between Sunnis opposed to the regime and Alawites loyal to Bashar al-Assad. This presents a danger of tangible sectarian divisions as well as their potential instrumentalisation to advance political agendas.
The loss of the Assad regime, politically and militarily backed by Tehran, would contribute to further isolating Iran in the region. Even if Assad can hold onto power for years to come, Syria will no longer be the strong state that it had been for decades. For Tehran, the Syrian uncertainty requires a rethinking of its strategy toward Israel and could drastically impact its support to both Hezbollah and Hamas.
Iranian decision-making circles are faced with multiple challenges, both domestically and on the international front. The stakes are complicated by the overlap between international issues – the nuclear program and relations with the United States – and regional ones – the Syrian crisis and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The country is at a crossroads. It could see its position significantly diminished in the coming months and years, but it could also benefit from new spaces for projecting its power both in the Middle East and in wider Central Asia. In Syria, Tehran wants to have a say in any solution that emerges. It is trying to initiate some low profile contacts with parts of the Syrian opposition, and could probably be prevailed upon to agree to Bashar’s departure, provided the Baath security organs remain in power. However, Iran’s economy is also suffering from the new sanctions, and Israel has threatened to launch an attack, with or without U.S. support. Iran’s regional status is therefore under threat, as is the regime itself, which could face renewed domestic unrest.
Tehran could suddenly find itself isolated to an extent that is unprecedented in its recent history. And it is running out of options.
Marlène Laruelle is associate researcher at FRIDE, a Madrid-based think tank, and a research professor at George Washington University.
This is an extract from a longer report published by FRIDE.