I get the impression after a month in the United States and many public and private discussions on the Middle East that the issue of Iran – or the Iranian “threat” as it has long been called in many quarters in the U.S. – is no longer as pressing or threatening a matter as it has been in recent years. The main reason perhaps is that when it comes to the Middle East, the United States generally finds it hard to walk and chew gum at the same time; in other words, it has trouble dealing with more than one major issue at a time.
The “threat” of a nuclear-capable Iran with its own enrichment facilities has been heavily marketed in the U.S. in recent years by a combination of neoconservatives, pro-Israelis and other groups that find Iran an easy target and scapegoat, for many reasons having to do with Iranian-American political tensions, historical anger on both sides, and regional strategic issues.
Today, though, three other major issues seem to have relegated Iran to the background of the foreign policy scene in Washington, at least for now. These are the American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab citizen revolts and uprisings across the region, and the renewed focus on the Palestinian quest for statehood at the U.N. and its diplomatic reverberations.
Iran itself has not changed very much in the past year or two vis-à-vis relations with the U.S. However, American perception of Iran and its dangers seems to have softened a bit, as the U.S. finds itself with its hands full trying to deal with the three other issues mentioned above.
Washington and American political culture are at their best when they shield themselves from the frenzied extremes of the ideological lobbies that run amok in the capital, and instead get on with the task of studying and assessing foreign policy issues on their own merit, based on facts not imagination.
I had the pleasure of attending such a gathering a few days ago in Washington, D.C. at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which examined the intertwined domestic and regional dimensions of Iranian policy. One of the issues discussed was how Iran has responded to the upheavals in the Arab world, and how Arabs across the region view Iran in return.
My sense of the situation is that Iran and the United States find themselves, peculiarly, in similar situations: they were both caught off guard by the Arab citizen revolts; they have both reacted with visible confusion; and they both stand to lose in the short run by the transformations underway in the Arab world, in Iran’s case in four ways, at least.
The first is that quite a few Arab governments or political movements are now openly criticizing and resisting Iran and its Arab allies or surrogates. Saudi Arabia is leading an overt anti-Iranian campaign that is focused most directly these days on Bahrain (supporting the king), Lebanon (opposing Hezbollah), and Syria (weakening or toppling the Assad regime). This confrontation is sometimes articulated in the vocabulary of Sunnis versus Shiites (which I personally believe is highly exaggerated and simplistic). The decisive Saudi-led harnessing of Gulf Cooperation Council political, military and economic assets to put down the uprising in Bahrain is the most striking manifestation of this explicit pushback against Iran.
The second place where Iran is losing is in Syria, and by extension in Lebanon with the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah connections. If the Assad regime is weakened or falls, Iran is likely to lose a strategic partner that represents one of its few foreign policy gains in the Arab region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A change in Syria will have consequences for Iranian-Hezbollah logistical links, in a manner that cannot be firmly sketched today but that is certain to be significant.
Iran’s third loss is that its attempts to gain Arab favor by rhetorically attacking Israel are being almost totally marginalized by two concurrent developments: the center of gravity of Arab-Israeli issues is shifting to the U.N. and other diplomatic arenas; and Turkey has stepped up and assumed the role of regional power that is challenging Israel diplomatically in a far more credible manner than Iran has ever done.
The fourth reason for Iran’s decline in Arab eyes is that the Arab world is preoccupied with its own uprisings that seek to establish more accountable and democratic political systems, making the Iranian model of a centralized, security-dominated, economically rapacious state less and less appealing.
The three arenas where many Arabs applauded Iranian policies in recent years – revolutionary zeal, challenging Israel, and standing up to the U.S. and the West – are now arenas where Arabs and Turks dominate. Iran is losing its role as a stand-in that compensates emotionally for Arab political frustrations or weaknesses.
(Article first published in the Daily Star Lebanon on Oct 5, 2011)