By Simon Tisdall
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 17/05/2011
Snap judgments in Washington and Jerusalem that Iran would be a main beneficiary of the collapse of the old Arab order now look wide of the mark. Infighting within the regime is matched by, and linked to, rising strategic uncertainty abroad. For these and other reasons, such as the gathering impact of nuclear-related sanctions, the era of cocky Iranian international defiance may be drawing to a close.
Amid the Middle East maelstrom, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – Tehran's terrible twins – suddenly look off balance, vulnerable, and at odds.
Khamenei tried initially to hijack the Arab liberation movements in the name of Iran's illiberal theocratic brand, shamelessly sidestepping the brutal suppression of Iran's own democratic revolt in 2009. "What I firmly announce is that a new movement, with the grace of God, has started in the region," he said in his Persian new year message in March. "This widespread awakening of nations, which is directed towards Islamic goals, will definitely become victorious."
Significantly, Khamenei did not mention Syria. But as unrest there and elsewhere has intensified, and as the essentially secular, wholly temporal, democratic thrust of that unrest has become undeniable, he and other Iranian leaders have largely abandoned the attempt to portray it as spreading Khomeini-ist revolution. Instead they complain about Nato intervention in Libya and a US-Israeli "plot" to topple Assad.
The stakes are undoubtedly high. Syria's importance to Shia Iran as a prime conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as a base for Hamas leaders running Gaza, as a frontline ally in the confrontation with Israel and the US, and as a political and commercial pathway into the Arab world is hard to exaggerate. But Tehran may reluctantly share western analysis that, regardless of Assad's fate, the political balance between the minority Alawi Shia regime in Damascus and the Sunni majority has shifted irreversibly – to Iran's distinct disadvantage.
A flurry of recent statements indicated rising Iranian anxiety. Speaking in Turkey, Ahmadinejad said there was "no need for foreign intervention" in Syria, as if anybody was contemplating it. Foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast accused western media of exaggerating the violence. And an official statement urged government and protesters to compromise in the interests of anti-Zionist solidarity.
"If Assad survives, he will have to establish some distance from Iran to appease Sunni protesters," said American commentator David Ignatius, quoting US officials. "If he's toppled, Syria is likely to be ruled by a Sunni-dominated regime that will be more hostile to Iran."
The negative implications for Iran of the Arab revolts do not stop with Syria. The shotgun wedding between the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, after years of bitter estrangement, has been widely attributed to the Hamas leadership's new sense of insecurity in its habitual Syrian base. But it was also the product of a new assertiveness by Egypt, whose summary disposal of the slavishly pro-American Mubarak has begun to restore Cairo's authority as the leading Arab power and an honest broker of inter-Arab disputes.
An Egypt less in thrall to Washington, and more prepared to defy Israel (for example, by permanently opening the Gaza crossings) could in theory benefit Tehran. But a more democratic and politically stronger, independent Egypt would also be a formidable rival and check on Tehran's regional ambitions. In an interview with the Washington Post, Egypt's new foreign minister, Nabil El-Araby, said Cairo had "turned a page with every country in the world". But he declined to say whether that really included Iran, too.
The revolts in Bahrain and Yemen, drawing in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have also brought into the open long-simmering tensions with Iran – with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, for example, directly accusing Tehran of plotting a coup. The confrontation galvanised the normally passive Saudis into a rare show of force, in Bahrain, in defence of their perceived interests. And in Lebanon, too, Iran's ongoing "flagrant intervention" was publicly denounced by the outgoing prime minister, Saad Hariri. He vowed Tehran would not be allowed to use its ally, Hezbollah, to turn Lebanon into an "Iranian protectorate".
None of this has gone unnoticed in Washington and Jerusalem, where policymakers (with the exception of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu) appear more relaxed about the Iranian "threat" than they have for some time. "The Iranians are in trouble," wrote analyst Aluf Benn in Haaretz. "It is best for Israel to remain quiet and not intervene, and to let the internal processes in Tehran and Damascus do their work."
The sudden outpouring of repressed hostility unleashed by the Arab spring has punctured the illusion, cultivated by Iran, of harmonious relations with the Arab world and has instead highlighted its isolation. More dangerously for the warring Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, it may act as a catalyst reviving Iran's internal opposition as economic problems mount and political factionalism intensifies ahead of next year's parliamentary polls. At their latest demonstration in February, broken up like all the others, Tehran protesters hit on a slogan the terrible twins might do well to ponder: "Whether Cairo or Tehran, death to tyrants!"