Iran’s Doubled-edged Sword

The foreign policy opportunities that the turmoil in the Arab world has created for Iran could be outweighed by new domestic unrest it has helped to spark.

By LESLIE SUSSER
March 24, 2011 17:42
Aircraft carrier

Aircraft carrier 521. (photo credit: Reuters)

IN LATE FEBRUARY, WITH THE Arab world in turmoil, two Iranian warships sailed through the Suez Canal on their way to the Syrian port of Latakia in the eastern Mediterranean.

It was the first time since the ayatollahs came to power in 1979 that armed Iranian vessels had asked for and received permission to traverse the Egyptian waterway.

True, according to the 1888 Constantinople Convention, the new Egyptian rulers had no choice but to grant the “Khark,” a 33,000- ton supply vessel and the “Alvand,” a 1,500- ton frigate armed with torpedoes and antiship missiles, rights of passage.

Nevertheless, in crossing the canal in an overtly provocative manner, the Iranians were making multiple statements: That Egypt, for decades the most prominent member of the pro-American anti-Iranian camp in the Arab world, was no longer obviously part of a grand US-led Middle Eastern alliance; that, in the Iranian view, American power in the region was in decline and could be challenged with impunity; that, with a capacity to project power as far as the Mediterranean, Iran was the coming hegemonic power in the region; and that unlike the US, which abandoned longtime faithful allies, such as the deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, Iran always stood fast by its friends, starting with Syria.

In other words, by crossing the canal, the Iranians were issuing an open invitation to moderate Arab regimes in flux to break with a “declining” America and join their “ascendant” radical camp. During an inspection of the Iranian vessels at Latakia, Ahmad Mousavi, Iran’s Ambassador to Damascus, spelled it out. “If Egypt and other Islamic countries stand by Iran and Syria, we will see the end of the United States’ hegemony in the region,” he declared.

The Iranian gunboat diplomacy, harmless in itself, raises issues of the utmost importance for the region’s future. For example, how are the changes in the Arab world likely to affect the struggle between the US and Iran for domination in the Middle East? How will the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes in the Arab world impact on the simmering discontent against the ayatollahs in Iran? And will America, after close to 6,000 fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan in wars that have already cost the US taxpayer a staggering 1.1 trillion dollars, have the political will to stay the course on both these crucial tracks? IN TALKS WITH THEIR AMERICAN counterparts, Israeli officials have been urging a two-pronged, US-led Western policy aimed at curbing Iranian influence: backing the new Arab leaderships with a strong show of diplomatic and economic support, while imposing tougher sanctions on Iran buttressed by a credible military threat, if the regime persists with its nuclear weapons program.

Israeli strategic thinkers and Iran experts are convinced that, despite regional perceptions, the US is still by far the region’s strongest power broker and that Iran is not yet even close to being in the ascendant.

Indeed, some see Iran, rather than the US, as the paper tiger and are urging the Obama Administration to exploit the regional upheavals to help ratchet up domestic pressure on the Iranian regime.

Others, however, see the emergence of a new regional political culture in which popular sentiment plays a key role, and argue that, in a choppy transitional period, this could make things very difficult for both the US and Israel. It could also help Iran make inroads in the Arab world. These voices argue that this new reality could well lead to strong American pressure on Israel to move forward on the Palestinian track as a means of winning the US points with the newly empowered Arab masses.

MOST EXPERTS, HOWEVER, concur that reports of looming Iranian dominance are grossly exaggerated. Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy does not think the Iranians have been able to exploit the current turmoil in the Arab world and doubts whether they will be able to do so in the longer run. “I think the majority in the region, states, players, societies, tribes, instinctively reject Iranian- Shi’ite domination,” he tells The Report.

“The basic fact is that Shi’ites are in a minority, and, therefore, ultimately, the societies in the region will not accept an Iraniandominated Middle East.”

Halevy is unimpressed by the Iranian naval mission to Syria which, he says, “petered out” into nothing.

“A couple of boats sent through the Suez Canal? If this is the best they can do, they can’t do very much,” he asserts. In Halevy’s view, in dispatching the ships, the Iranians were trying give the impression that they now have an option for a naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. But, he says, simply sending two vessels in and out is hardly evidence of a capacity for a sustained presence in the area.

Unlike many strategic thinkers, Halevy is not convinced that the attainment of nuclear weapons will inevitably give Iran regional dominance. In his view, a lot will depend on the way Israel, the region and the international community respond. If, for example, a nuclear Iran is isolated as a pariah state the way North Korea has been, that would have a significant containing effect.

“I am not saying there is no chance that the Iranians will try to use nuclear capacity to cast a long military shadow over the Middle East,” he says. “But far short of taking military action, there is a variety of other things Israel itself could and probably will do to show that the Iranians are not the sole power-brokers in this part of the world. For example, exposing Iran’s proxies as incapable of defending themselves. And in such a contingency, I don’t think the Iranians would rush to their rescue,” he insists.

Most importantly, Halevy believes the US is still very much in the regional driving seat, calling the shots. He points out that Washington played a leading role in securing the current outcome of the situation in Egypt and that millions of Egyptian protesters believe the US supported them and, in doing so, supported Egypt. The same is true of Libya, where the US led the way for the UN Security Council decisions on sanctions and on referring Muammar Gaddafi’s case to the International Court of Justice.

“The acid test will be the final outcome of the upheaval in the Arab world,” Halevy adds. “And it could well be that in retrospect, people will see that the Americans played their cards very carefully and very wisely. At the moment there is much confusion.

But once the dust begins to settle, we will find many of the traditional alliances being restored,” he predicts.

DORE GOLD, A FORMER STRATEgic adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, agrees that Iranian power is more a case of perception than reality. He maintains that the notion of an ascendant Iran was reinforced by the fact that the Arab regimes ousted or under pressure had largely been American allies, like Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and, to some extent, even Libya and Yemen. This view was also bolstered by a widely held assessment that empowerment of Sunni Islamists, for example in Egypt, serves the Iranian interest.

Nevertheless, says Gold, “it would be a big mistake to simply dismiss America as a declining power in the region.” Besides its obvious superpower status, Gold points out that the US still has a huge military presence in the region, with large forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fleets, including aircraft carriers, in the Arabian Sea and the Mediterranean.

On the other hand, Iran is not nearly as strong as it would have the rest of the region believe. Indeed, Gold dismisses the Iranian effort to suggest a capacity to project power as far afield as the Mediterranean as empty bluster. “The Iranian naval plan is to build new bases beyond the straits of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman and have a capacity to project power in that area by 2015. The Mediterranean is well outside their compass,” he tells The Report.

Gold, however, is far less sanguine than Halevy about the prospect of a nuclear Iran.

He points out that Iran has been supporting regional subversion all over the Middle East and in South Asia with its current military capacity, backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shi’ite militias in southern Iraq, the Hizballah in Lebanon and even dispatching Hizballah units to Sinai and Egypt.

“That activity occurred with a non-nuclear Iran. So imagine how much more subversive it would be if, with a nuclear umbrella, it was confident that no one could retaliate against it,” he argues.

In Gold’s view, given the fluid situation in the Arab world, the US and its Western allies should take a much more robust stand against the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Not only should sanctions be tightened, but there should be a credible military threat on the table. Only if they fear an American strike, would the ayatollahs be likely to suspend their quest for a nuclear bomb. “There must be a clear expression on the part of the West that a resort to force is not ruled out,” says Gold. “The best way not to have to use military force in the future is to make it clear you are prepared to use it in the present.”

Gold’s big idea, though, is to exploit current sentiment in the Arab world and in the international community to put the Iranian regime on the back foot. He says the most important thing the US and its Western allies could do would be to declare Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Ruler of Iran, an illegitimate leader, because of his crimes against his own civilian population, the same way they did with Gaddafi. “That would give enormous encouragement to the protesters in Iran. It would show them that they are not alone and that the Iranian government is viewed as a rogue leadership,” he concludes.

FOR SOME ANALYSTS, THOUGH, the perception of American decline – real or imagined – against the backdrop of regional change has presented the Iranians with a golden opportunity for making inroads into the Arab world. Tel Aviv University’s Uzi Rabi, a Persian Gulf specialist currently working on a book provisionally entitled “Iran, Israel and the Arabs: The Changing Face of the 21st Century Middle East,” argues that the Iranian modus operandi has always been to extend their influence wherever possible and that this is now playing into a major reassessment in the Arab world of regional options.

“People in the Arab world are talking about possible new alignments with Russia or China or even Iran,” he tells The Report.

In Rabi’s view, the Arab world is undergoing a major geo-political shift, precipitated by the need leaders now have to listen to what their people are saying or face the consequences.

In the short term, Rabi envisages the emergence of what he calls “soft autocracies,” in which leaders of still largely undemocratic countries take public sentiment into account, almost certainly to the detriment of ties with America or Israel. “I don’t say the new leaders are going to become part and parcel of the Iranian camp, but they are going to be very choosy. And the Americans will find it very difficult to rebuild the old anti-Iranian Arab camp around Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other moderates,” he contends.

“The Americans may find themselves again supporting the new regimes logistically and economically, but they won’t get the same results. In other words, they won’t have a Mubarak. They won’t have one hundred percent allies when it comes to geopolitical alignment.”

In Rabi’s view, the new rules of the game will almost certainly lead to US pressure on Israel to be more accommodating on the Palestinian track, in order to help America win friends on the Arab street.

“This is the simplest and most viable move the Americans could make. And regardless of what the Americans do, Israel should consider doing something like that of its own accord. Otherwise it’s going to find itself facing an intensified anti-Israel campaign on a very wide front. The writing is on the wall,” he declares.

For Iran, though, the upheaval in the Arab world is proving to be a double-edged sword. The foreign policy opportunities it has created could be outweighed by new domestic unrest it has helped to spark. In early March, demonstrators took to the streets of Tehran to protest the reported jailing of opposition leaders Ali Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and their wives. Mousavi and Karroubi, who had been under house arrest, were reportedly taken from their homes to the Heshmatieh prison, after calling for rallies in support of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The two men were at the forefront of the so-called “Green Revolution” that swept Iran after the rigged presidential election in June 2009, and which, over a period of months, was brutally stamped out by the regime, with a wave of kidnappings, arrests, torture and killings. Regime reaction to the latest wave of protests, ostensibly in sympathy with the uprisings in the Arab world, has been more restrained, presumably out of concern for international opinion.

Opponents of the regime have called for rallies every Tuesday in March.

Although Iran is facing a real domestic crisis, and the knock on effect from the Arab world is having an impact, Rabi maintains that toppling the ayatollahs will be far more difficult than bringing down the Arab autocrats.

The Iranian regime, he says, is covered by a cluster of protective layers that give it a wide margin of safety in a crisis.

For one, the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards, the only armed forces on the streets, are loyal to the regime and are dependent on its survival for their existence; there is no organized opposition, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, that could capitalize on a wave of spontaneous protest.

Mousavi and Karroubi are only symbols, widely criticized by the secular opposition who want to change the Iranian system altogether, not reform it; the Iranian regime is much better prepared than the Arab rulers were, because it has gone through the process of would-be revolution before, and developed highly effective ways of dealing with it. “Gaddafi, for example, never believed that kind of situation could occur.

Nor did Mubarak or [Tunisia’s] Ben Ali,” Rabi declares.

OTHER IRAN WATCHERS ARE less pessimistic. Menashe Amir, a former head of Israel Radio’s Persian service, believes that if the international community sends the right signals, regime change in Iran is possible. Amir, who closely monitors events in Iran, maintains that the opposition is determined to topple the regime in its entirety, not merely to rectify the results of the rigged 2009 presidential election. “The slogans in the recent demonstrations, ‘Death to the Dictator’ and ‘Not Gaza and Lebanon, but Tunis, Egypt and Iran,’ show this,” he asserts.


Opposition grievances, Amir maintains, are deep and irreconcilable. Large segments of the Iranian people are tired of religiondriven politics, of national resources being squandered in foreign countries like Venezuela and Lebanon, and of a potentially catastrophic foreign policy. Most importantly, says Amir, changing international attitudes to the use of force against domestic unrest could dramatically alter the balance of power in Iran between the regime and its opponents. “Unlike in 2009 and 2010, in recent protests no one was killed and only very few people were injured. That shows the regime now realizes that it can’t simply open fire on demonstrators. And that will encourage Iranians to take to the streets in greater numbers, possibly gaining momentum for change,” he avers.

Amir acknowledges that with the Revolutionary Guards and Basij on virtually every street, the protesters have no chance of wresting power by force. But he believes the Egyptian model of sustained mass protest could work in Iran, too. “There is a central principle in Shi’ite Islam called ijma or consensus,” he says. “If you want to know the weight a Shi’ite cleric carries, you ask how many followers he has. That principle applies to the regime as well. If the masses continue to go out into the streets and to demonstrate for its overthrow, the regime will lose its legitimacy,” he insists.

The deep grievances, the regime’s reticence to use force and the ijma principle create favorable conditions for a successful uprising. But in Amir’s view, it will not happen without significant international help. “I am not talking about military intervention.

There is no need for that. But the minute the world imposes really crippling sanctions on Iran, banning Iranian oil exports, banning sales to Iran of oil distillates, banning flights to and from Iran, totally paralyzing the Iranian economy – that will encourage the people to take to the streets in ever-growing numbers and to stay there until the regime falls,” he contends.

Sending ships through the Suez Canal was a first major Iranian gambit in a new cagey game for regional hegemony. In Amir’s view, the West now has an opening for a winning response. But will it have the political will and the foresight to make the checkmate move?


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