And also read my article “In 2011 U.S. Primacy in the Middle East Died; In 2012 The Funeral Will Be Held”
By Barry Rubin
The last year has been a disaster for Iran’s Islamist regime But that fact has little to do with Western policy, though sanctions have hurt Tehran. The real problem can be expressed by the principle that the enemy of your enemy is…your enemy.
Let’s go back to 2010. Iran was riding high. It had Syria as an ally and client; Tehran’s influence was extending into parts of Afghanistan and also in Iraq. Lebanon was coming under the control of Iran’s client Hizballah while Hamas was also an Iranian client. As the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s as the capital of Communism, Iran was the sole radical Islamist regime around.
So if you wanted Islamism, Iran was the only game in town. Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who hate Iran and Shia Muslims, had to swallow their distaste and watch their followers cheer on Hizballah as the “victor” over Israel in 2006. If Iran got nuclear weapons, these would be seen as “Islamic bombs” and Iran could pose as the champion of the Middle Eastern Muslims, the new Saladin in the battle against imperialism and Zionism.
In other words, the idea that Iran could become the leader of Muslims or the Middle East as a whole was credible.
All these pretensions have now vanished. And, again, it has nothing to do with U.S. or Western policy. On the contrary, ironically, the failure of U.S. and Western policies has undermined Tehran’s regional prospects more than any success for sanctions.
The reason is simple. The rise of anti-Western revolutionary Sunni Islamists, mainly embodied in the Muslim Brotherhood, has made Iranian leadership unnecessary. Who needs Persian, Shia Tehran when Sunni Arab Islamists dominate Egypt, Tunisia, and probably Libya? Hamas has changed sides (it will still take Iranian money but not do its bidding) and a massive Sunni-Shia conflict is developing that will push any Arab-Israeli conflict into being a sideshow in comparison, except perhaps in the minds of Western “experts,” journalists, ad diplomats.
Then there’s Syria, where Iran’s ally is being weakened and challenged by a coalition of Sunni Islamists, moderates, traditionalist Sunnis, and Kurds. This civil war is intensifying hatred of Iran as the patron of a repressive “anti-Sunni” regime. In Bahrain, Saudi and other forces crushed both the pro-Iran and moderate Shia factions. And in Iraq, the situation has evolved into some Shia-Sunni cooperation, Kurdish self-rule, and a relatively marginalized pro-Iran faction.
Equally, Iran was also bragging two years ago about its growing alliance with Turkey, whose Islamist regime merely pretends to be friendly to the West. While bilateral relations between Ankara and Tehran are still quite good—especially in economic terms—the two countries are now competing for influence in Syria. Turkey has its own ambitions (though these are doing no better than those of Iran). In some ways, that is in “defensive’ terms, Iran can depend on Turkey but not regarding its wider regional ambitions.
In short, while two years ago Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapon would have brought a strategic earthquake in the region, mobilizing massive pro-Iran sentiment among the Arab masses. It is now far less of an advantage.
While Iran still poses a threat to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and to Israel, its overall strategic weight has been greatly reduced. The Iranian bid for regional and Arab leadership Is basically over. This should be remembered in the mounting hysteria over Iran’s nuclear drive. On the regional level, Tehran has missed the boat.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.