360° Analysis

The Arab Spring: Has Iran Passed its Peak of Power in the Middle East?


January 22, 2012 10:58 EDT

An analysis of the events in the Arab world should take the Iranian perspective into account, argues Mahmoud Ayad

The Islamic Republic's environment is rumbling. The upheaval in the Arab neighborhood, introducing the “Arab Spring” and shaking countries from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, has been “springing” for more than a year and nobody seems to know how incisively the political map will further change in the coming months.

What happens after the Egyptian elections? How well is Assad established in Damascus? What prospects does Iraq have, now that US occupation has come to an end? The non-Arab neighbors' outlooks are no less significant. Turkey has gained influence in the Middle East, the Afghan government is acting more autonomously, and the erstwhile alliance between Pakistan and the US can at best be described as a relationship of common destiny. 

While the events are occurring at a fast pace, the evaluation of the implications and impacts for Tehran differ. Against the background of different analyses, this article describes and confronts the current Iranian assessment of the regional situation.

“Islamic Awakening”

In February 2011, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei identified the uprisings in the Arab World as an “Islamic Awakening.” They would, according to Khamenei, present “what was always referred to as the Islamic awakening created by the victory of the great Revolution of the Iranian nation.“ As if history wanted to concede this point to Khamenei, of all days he could have fallen, the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stood down as president on February 11, the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution victory in Iran.

The German Internet think-tank Irananders reviewed the Islamic Republic's position within the “Arab Spring” as a very advantageous one early on. But not everyone shared this view. Publicly sponsored German think-tanks saw Khamenei's words as “appropriation attempts.” The leftist news portal Telepolis wrote, “This is a brazen monopolization for the protest movement, which follows completely different objectives.” The protests were described as “predominantly motivated by secular impulses” and the emphasis of the Islamic character of the uprisings, for the disadvantage of secular and other motives, was described as the Ayatollah's “self-protection” by the news portal.

Iran, Turkey and Syria

As soon as the protests began to spread through Syria the situation became unpredictable for Tehran. After the impressive falls of Zine El-Abideen Ben Ali and Mubarak, and the emerging reports about Syrian army defectors, many voices in the Arab World treated the fall of “Tehran's last ally” as occurring within days or weeks at the most. Western media stayed rather contained and declaredthat nothing would be certain in Syria anymore. Some headlines assumed that demonstrations would quickly arrive in Damascus. As an explicit search on Google in the first weeks and months after the protests erupted showed, Western media was content with reporting the abrasiveness of the Syrian regime by citing mobile phone footage of security forces using violence against activists.

Furthermore, Irananders emphasized the decentralization of protests and the fact that they never really reached the Syrian capital Damascus nor the million-strong economic center of Aleppo at an early stage. Compared to the other countries of the “Arab Spring,” the Syrian uprising was and still is limited to the hinterland and loosely to a few larger towns. Irananders also suggested that large numbers of Syrian security forces and ethnic minorities had been killed or injured by armed aggressions of the (not always peaceful) insurgents—a fact that was rarely treated in Germany. Irananders also discussed the perils of the sectarianism, which was further ignited in particular by the Arabic broadcasting stations Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera. With regards to reports over the uprisings, Irananders further suggested that "comparing the news coverage in the West to that in Iran over the very same events in Syria may [cause] readers and television viewers to [think] that two completely different events are [occurring]" (The German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer visited the country very recently and his coverage is an exception. Attention should be paid for instance to the fact that he did not depend on YouTube videos and similar sources, but instead gathered information first-hand).

Iran's assessment of the situation has been similar. The state of affairs in Syria was and still is treated differently than the other countries of the “Arabellion,” and the Islamic Republic emphasized that it would not abandon its Syrian partner.

This is the point that has led some analysts and journalists to conclude that Iran is the loser of the “Arab Spring.” As an antithesis, Turkey has been portrayed as the winner, as it positioned itself at a very early stage on the side of anti-regime demonstrators. Ankara is the great winner, especially in Syria, because it “gained international credit and the esteem of the Syrian opposition through its comprehensive and principled position,” noted Walter Poschfrom the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Iran, in contrast—even in the case of a survival of the Assad-regime—finds itself merely on the side of an isolated and weakened autocracy. However, as we have suggested, Iran's assessment clearly differs from this statement.

With its loyalty to Damascus, Iran has counted on a twofold benefit:

First, is the notion that protests in Syria have not been sufficiently broad enough to cause a regime change, which has proved to be correct in retrospect. The majority of Syrians are indeed asking for reforms and changes, but they do not support the radical demandsclaimed by armed insurgents. Furthermore, despite calls for reform, even from the adherents of the regime, Damascus and Aleppo—the two important economic and political centers of the country—have witnessed several large demonstrations in support of the government (a point ignored by both Western and Arab mainstream media). Indeed, Assad can be sure of the loyalty from his power base and according to a poll commissioned by The Doha Debates, he can even count on the majority of the Syrian population. Should the assessment of a survival of the regime turn out to be true (and the signs for it are very clear), this would indicate that Iran has positioned itself on the winning side from the beginning. It would keep a reliable partner who not only owes Tehran a favor but is also tied even closer to the Islamic Republic due to its isolation in its Arab environment.

The second benefit is that unlike Turkey, Iran has proven to be a loyal partner to the Syrian regime. Current and potential allies in the region should now understand Tehran's message that the country will not abandon a strategic partner. In his inaugural speech, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi stressed that he principally does not see the Arab Gulf states (including Saudi Arabia) as rivals, but as potential allies. The examples of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and significantly Muammar Gaddafi, have in contrast shown how unreliable a strategic partnership with the West can be.

One further aspect is that even if the Syrian regime falls, the result would most likely be a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a group that is positioned ideologically closer to the Islamic Republic—a feat Assad would never achieve. In early 2011, before the uprising in Syria began, a senior Iranian diplomat told Irananders with regards to the MB, that a fall of the Syrian Ba'ath regime would, in the medium or long-term, be in Iran’s interest. Bearing this in mind, the Iranian appeal that Damascus should initiate reforms sounds reasonable. Iran's top priorities are to avoid a power vacuum in Syria at all costs and to prevent weakening an important member of the “Resistance Axis.”

The “Arabellion” and Tehran

Posch also stated: “Iran interprets the Arab Spring as a continuation of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Nine months [this statement was made in October 2011] after the outbreak of the upheavals in the Arab countries we are however, witnessing that the events have changed the strategic settings to the disadvantage of Iran.” This is because the Islamic Republic has, according to Posch, suffered “enormous setbacks” in all Arab countries except Iraq.

Posch acknowledges that it is part of the Iranian strategic conception that pro-Western regimes will fall sooner or later, either through elections or popular uprisings. New regimes under Islamic influence and committed to the people—and not to the West or Israel—would subsequently seize power according to this view.

However, bearing this in mind, the consecutive balancing of influence in the region would then best be expressed by the rival's—that is to say by Turkey's and Saudi Arabia's—increase of power to the detriment of Iran. Riyadh would have an edge over Tehran because it has taken initiative, as the intervention in Bahrain has shown. As far as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen are concerned, the Islamic Republic could “at best” hope for anti-American and pro-Islamic governments. Egypt and Turkey would then prospectively steal Iran's limelight with respect to its ideological Israeli antipathy and emerge to rival powers in the leadership of the pro-Palestinian axis.

Again, Tehran's assessment of the situation differs. It is especially the stressing of the fact that Iran follows an ideologized “soft” foreign policy strategy, which should lead Western pundits to a different conclusion. Since 1979, the Islamic Republic's world view has been characterized by an emphasis on Islamic unity which is reflected in the preamble of the Iranian constitution. According to this view, only the united efforts of the “Muslim Ummah” (nation) would lead to the liberation of the Islamic world. Subsequently, Tehran will not care about a Western interpretation of Ankara and Cairo's engagement in the Palestinian cause as a “rivalry for Iran.”

The logic of action that Western scientific analyses presume Middle Eastern actors follow, is one of a distinct neorealism. In other words, Western pundits assume that the countries in the region act on the maxim “get the biggest share of the pie to the lowest costs possible.” To a certain degree this might be reasonable, but the rational neorealist logic is often superimposed by an ideologized-idealistic logic of the actors. In our special case, this means that the Islamic Republic will probably not become jealous by suddenly seeing Egypt as an important “Islamic actor” in the Palestinian cause.

Indeed, the Irananders' interpretation of the “Arab Spring” as an “Islamic Awakening” provides more substance than many analysts and journalists have wanted to admit. While talking about secular movements in early 2011, the very same people are today surprised by an announced implementation of Shari'a in Libya, the victory of Islamists in free and fair elections in Tunisia, the rise of an Islamist prime minister in Morocco, and the striking evidence that Egypt is moving down a similar route. Significantly, Kamal Helbawy, one of the senior heads of the Egyptian MB, expressed via the BBC that he wishedEgypt would “as Iran does, achieve more technological and scientific” progress and become a regional power in the same manner. Afterwards he thanked Tehran for its support of the Egyptian revolution. Turkey in contrast was harshly criticized for its proposal of a secularized Egypt.

As long as we apply our own perceptions of rationality to the actions of states and actors in the Middle East, we will not be able to perform anything but biased assessments of the situation. Prejudices are also a great handicap for the interpretation of events. The instinctive rejection of the events being called an “Islamic Awakening,” merely because it was an Iranian Ayatollah who chose this expression and because it does not conform to the wishful thinking of liberal democratic movements, is not helpful for a proper understanding of the Arab World.

The claim that the current Arab revolutions owe a great part of their success to the Islamic Revolution of Iran should be critically scrutinized instead of condescendingly dismissed.

Political Islam, an undeniable phenomenon today, was initially made presentable by the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which happened amid an Arab world that was at that time saturated by nationalistic and socialistic ideals. Moreover, the Turkish ruling party AKP, in Iran's reading, is itself one of the impacts of the Islamic Revolution. In the face of such modified Iranian ideology spreading through the Islamic world, it might be a Western illusion of being on the winning side that will be condescendingly dismissed in the end.

*[This article is based on the analysis: “Arabischer Frühling: Ist Irans Zenit der Macht überschritten?”, originally published by Irananders].

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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