A Dynamic Scene
Iran and the Arab World post Arab Spring
Since the 1980s, Iran has defined itself as the sole revolutionary country in the Middle East. Its basis depended on a doctrinal legitimacy which appeared throughout different phases and in its political behavior, and has extended beyond the political borders of Iran and the Middle East. Interpretation of such legitimacy resulted in the idea of exporting the revolution, which haunted the Iranian-Arab relations, making it a central issue for more than three decades.
The Iranian feeling of moral superiority has witnessed a great shock since the very beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. That feeling receded as the Arab Spring spread. Most importantly, the uprisings posed further questions about the extent of the remaining Iranian moral force, in light of the accelerated events which have hit six Arab States directly, spreading an atmosphere of change elsewhere in the region. That moral superiority provoked the Iranian political and religious institutions to describe the Arab Spring as an extension of the 1979 Islamic revolution. That impression was dismissed by the Iranian opposition known as the Green Movement, which believes that Iran has lost its luster in the region following the tenth presidential election in 2009.
The Iranian model, which prevailed in the Arab world in the 1980s, faded sharply, disappearing altogether after the 2009 presidential elections. The domestic allegations of rigging and subsequent governmental suppression against protesters have had a crucial effect on the political religious and non-religious forces in the Arab world. The Arab Spring has come to confirm the recession of the Iranian paradigm by promoting a self-confidence in different areas of the Arab World – a belief that change can be achieved peacefully from within and without waiting for outsider “saviors”.
The Sectarian Frame
The Iranian reaction and interaction with the Arab Spring has increased the crumbling of admiration towards the Iranian example, and perhaps the belief in it. Iran, which considered what happened in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to be a mere reaction to authoritarian rule, has a different evaluation in the case of Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. It has criticized what it has dubbed as outside intervention in Yemen and Bahrain and entirely rejected acknowledging the uprisings in Syria. Such a reaction that revealed self-interests, once again conveyed Iran in a sectarian light, an image that it has made little attempt to discard throughout the last thirty years. Crucially, for many it proved that since the occupation of Iraq in 2003 Iran’s foreign policy has been abiding by sectarian interests – a fact that is certainly unfavorable for the country.
Though consequences of the Arab spring were not reflected in the relations between Iran and the Arab world, Iranian relations with the neighboring Turkey were hugely affected by Turkish participation in NATO’s operations in Libya. As Iran saw it, these operations were merely serving the American interests. Generally, some representatives of the political and religious institutions in Iran believe that Turkey is supporting the Arab Spring, especially in Syria, in order to “realize an American agenda to spread the Turkish model of political Islam”. That belief has resulted in a cooling of relations between the countries. Although Turkey insists on the path of negotiations to solve the impasse of the Iranian nuclear program, and rejects any military action against Iran, this does not necessarily point to an absence of disagreement over change in the Arab world.
Despite the fact that the impact of the Arab Spring on Iran is limited, the coalitions on which Iranian foreign policy relies have become threatened. The Syrian scene, whatever its end, does not seem promising for Iran. The developments in Syria might affect its coalition with Hezbollah, which will in turn, seek political redefinition whether in Lebanon or in the whole region. Another notable fact in this regard is the stagnant relations between Hamas and Iran which I previously addressed in 2006. In fact, the ideological base of the relationship between Iran and Hamas is fragile. When Hamas took an almost clear stance by not supporting the Syrian regime, it became obvious that its relationship with Iran had become disconnected.
Certainly, the internal changes in the Arab world will cast a shadow over Iran in many different aspects, such as those mentioned and those that are still forming. The Arab Spring is a revolutionary scene, and revolutions are not just events, they are events in continuous action. The accumulations, interactions and consequences of these events will certainly continue. Therefore, as the domestic political scene in some countries changes, their relations, foreign policy priorities and coalitions will change. That will unfold in the coming few years.