Arab World: Collateral
Iran’s regional influence waning as the Sunnis countries leave it struggling to hold on to its key asset, Syria.
AN IRANIAN warship is pictured at a dock in Syria Photo: Davoud Poorsehat/Reuters
Brig.-Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of the Iranian armed forces, told a
reporter this week that Iran would “not allow the enemy to advance” in Syria. He
said that no need had yet arisen for direct Iranian intervention in Syria and
expressed doubt that such a need would emerge.
Another senior Iranian
commander, Gen. Hamid Reza Moqadam-Far of the Revolutionary Guard, echoed
Jazayeri’s words. Moqadam-Far confirmed once more the presence of Iranian
fighters in Syria, operating alongside the Assad regime’s forces.
fighting words of these two senior Iranian military officials indicate just how
determined Tehran is to stave off the loss of its key client in Damascus. But,
as is often the case with such public expressions, the ringing Iranian words of
warning do not reflect Iranian strength. Rather, they are an indicator of the
diminished and problematic situation facing the Iranians across the Middle East
as a result of the re-shaping of the Arab world that has been under way since
With few assets remaining and little prospect of new gains,
the Iranians are grimly determined to hold what they have. But their staunch
backing of existing assets in Syria and Lebanon is itself serving to diminish
their chances of spreading their influence further.
Iran’s bid for
regional hegemony rests on its ability to successfully interfere in political
processes across the Middle East. Central to this ability was the appeal of the
Iranian revolutionary model, presented as an authentic Muslim form of
government, challenging the West and its puppets and clients. This all looks
rather threadbare in the wake of the Arab upheavals.
As Sunni Islamism
takes hold on the basis of mass popular support in key regional countries, the
Iranians are discovering that their model of repressive Shi’a Islamic rule
possesses little appeal. This has been demonstrated in a number of notable
recent setbacks suffered by the Iranians. Additional mishaps have also reduced
the Iranians’ reputation as savvy and feared covert operators.
this week, Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, the influential leader of the ruling
an-Nahda party, issued a public apology to the people of Syria for having
invited members of the Lebanese Hezbollah to Nahda’s ninth party convention.
Ghannouchi stressed his party’s support for the Syrian
Hezbollah, once Iran’s main avenue to the hearts and minds of
the Arabs, has become something of a toxic brand, because of movement leader
Hassan Nasrallah’s unwavering and loudly expressed support for the Assad regime
In Yemen, Iran has sought to build influence through
clandestine backing of the Shi’a Houthi rebels in the country’s north. The
Yemeni defense ministry last week announced that the authorities had
successfully located and dismantled an Iranian spy network operating in the
country. The network, Yemeni authorities alleged, was led by a former
Revolutionary Guard commander.
The authorities in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a
see the apprehending of this network as important tangible proof confirming
Iranian internal subversion in their country. The Iranians rapidly moved to try
to prevent diplomatic damage. The foreign ministry in Tehran flatly denied the
existence of the espionage cell. To no avail. This week, Yemeni President
Abd-Rabbu Mansour snubbed a visiting Iranian envoy who sought a meeting with
him. The Gulf Cooperation Council, meanwhile, expressed its support for Yemen
and its condemnation of Iran’s activities.
In all-important Egypt, too,
the indications are that Iran is losing out to the Sunnis in forging an alliance
with the ascendant Muslim Brotherhood.
In May, the Egyptian authorities
foiled an Iranian plot to kidnap the Saudi ambassador to Cairo, Ahmed Qatan.
President-elect Mohamed Morsy’s office is in the process of taking legal action
against the Iranian Fars News Agency for running an apparently bogus interview
with him in June.
To this list can of course be added the now familiar
stories of Hamas’s exit from the Iran-led regional alliance in recent months,
and Iran’s failure – so far, at least – to foment Shi’a versions of the Arab
Spring in Bahrain, Kuwait and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.
slow crystallization of a Sunni Islamist bloc leaves Iran exposed as a
sectarian, foreign Shi’a force. The rhetoric of resistance is entirely
inadequate to counter this – particularly since the main current evidence of
Iranian power on the ground is in Tehran’s backing for Assad’s slaughter of
mainly Sunni civilians in Syria.
Iran today finds it increasingly
difficult to wield influence outside of areas already allied with
Where there is a loser, of course, there is also a winner. In Syria,
Egypt and Yemen, it is above all Saudi Arabia which is throwing money at the
problems and as of now reaping the benefits of Sunni Islamism’s
Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian, Western-aligned regime. A
key unanswered question remains as to whether Saudi petrodollars will keep the
emerging Sunni governments focused on the Shi’a threat or whether they will also
find the time and inclination to act against the West and Israel.
Saudi advances represent a victory for better governance in the region. A
columnist in the Saudi-sponsored Asharq Alawsat newspaper last week said that
Iran’s “sectarian, racist and discriminatory” regional policy has failed. It is
worth noting that the Saudis and their allies are no less notable for these
three attributes than are the Iranians and their allies.
But what can be
said with confidence is that Iran and its Shi’a-led bloc have emerged as among
the main victims of the Arab ferment of 2011-2012.
Tehran wanted to be
engaged by now in a battle with a retreating West for the leadership of the
Muslim Middle East. Instead, it finds itself embroiled in a sectarian rearguard
action, desperately and brutally trying to preserve its assets against the
advance of a rising Sunni alignment.