Vol. 10, No. 31 March 7, 2011
- From Iran’s point of view, recent developments, especially in Egypt (long considered in the West as an anchor of stability and the initiator of a peace treaty with Israel), represent an improvement in Iran’s strategic status.
- Moreover, recent events have focused all attention on the Middle East arena and removed Iran’s nuclear program from the spotlight. The increase in the price of oil to over $100 a barrel has also led to the erosion of the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran (whose utility has yet to be proven).
- The Chief of Staff of Iran’s Joint Armed Forces, Maj. Gen. Seyyed Hassan Firuzabadi, said that the Islamic wave sweeping the region marks the beginning of a process that will end with the downfall of Israel, and Zionists fleeing to their countries of origin. He added that signs of such fear are already clearly visible on the faces of Israeli leaders.
- After the U.S. overthrow of the Iraqi regime in 2003, Iran felt itself to be under siege. Now, Tehran sees itself on the way to completing a regional “siege” of Israel – with Hizbullah in the north and Hamas in the south. Iran also believes that Jordan to the east will join the waves of protest, marking the fall of another nation that signed a peace treaty with Israel.
- The collapse of the old Arab order in the moderate Sunni countries of the Middle East is, at least in the short-to-medium term, favorable to Tehran and has significantly improved that country’s geo-strategic status and its ability to promote an ambitious Shiite pan-Islamic agenda.
- Iran is taking advantage of the current commotion in the Arab world and Western confusion to intensify its intervention, influence, and meddling in regions that were formerly under U.S. and Western influence, by deploying its Al-Quds force (a special unit for “exporting” the Islamic revolution beyond Iranian borders), while also exploiting the assets of Hizbullah, Syria, and Hamas.
The Breakdown of the Pro-Western Arab Regimes
The historic shake-up that has swept the Middle East, overturning the order that had existed for decades, caught Iran in the midst of celebrating the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution. Although Iran was not the motivating force behind the various revolutions in Sunni Arab regimes, Iranian leaders took the credit.
From Iran’s point of view, recent developments, especially in Egypt (long considered in the West as an anchor of stability and the initiator of a peace treaty with Israel), represent an improvement in Iran’s strategic status, at least in the short term. For Iran, the downfall of pro-Western Sunni Arab regimes and the overthrow of their rulers has a direct impact on the process of regional empowerment and reflects the strength of Iran’s message to Arab nations over the heads of their rulers.
Iran perceives Hizbullah’s domination of Lebanon, the Hamas takeover in Gaza, the continued advancement of the Iranian nuclear program, and now revolutions in the Arab world as all denoting the success of its Islamic revolution. Moreover, recent events have focused all attention on the Middle East arena and removed Iran’s nuclear program from the spotlight. The increase in the price of oil to over $100 a barrel has also led to the erosion of the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran (whose utility has yet to be proven).
Pan-Arabism Out, Pan-Islam In
Almost nothing remains of the “moderate” Sunni Arab camp. The few moderates that are left fear for their positions and are busy trying to maintain stability in the internal arena. Against this background we see Iranian warships being dispatched to the region via the Suez Canal, carrying not only a military but also a political and strategic message.
Furthermore, recent events have effectively blocked pan-Arabism and the establishment of a unified moderate Arab camp that might serve as a counter-weight to the Iranian rejectionist and defying camp. With the Western overthrow of the last symbol of Arabism and Arab strength – Saddam Hussein – no charismatic Arab leaders now remain or are likely to appear any time soon.
Tehran Hastens to Fill the Void
Iran (and Turkey too) now seeks to fill the resulting void, serving as an Islamic model of opposition and independence. While Sunni nations are likely to be preoccupied with establishing new governments at home, Iran will continue to underline its own Islamic style as an overall ideological-political framework or model for the establishment of a new order in the Middle East. Pan-Islamic beliefs, whether Iranian or Turkish in nature, will most likely permeate the newly emerging Middle East. At the same time, Iran will also continue to pursue activities in Africa and South America (where Hizbullah, Iran’s proxy, has increased its drug-smuggling activities to the U.S.)1 as it attempts to challenge the West on those fronts too.
Iran believes that the growth of popular movements opposing Sunni Arab regimes (especially Bahrain, see below) has produced conditions that enable it to further expand its own regional influence. It is expected to step up the use of its Al-Quds force (a special unit designated for subversive activity and “exporting” the Islamic revolution beyond Iran’s borders) in collaboration with Lebanese Hizbullah to intensify its meddling in Arab countries currently undergoing internal unrest.
In the past, Iranian subversion and efforts to spread the Shia doctrine in Arab countries encountered opposition on the part of local security forces. Furthermore, countries that previously contained Hizbullah and Hamas and promoted the peace process (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan) have now been weakened and are preoccupied with problems at home, while Iran is vigorously cementing its status as leader of the camp opposed to the peace process and American-Western intervention in the region.
The Iranian Press Sees the Destabilization of Israel
Many Iranian spokesmen and analysts see recent events as a catalyst leading to Israel’s destabilization in the region, in light of a weakening U.S. position and that country’s desertion of regional allies, particularly Egypt. According to the Iranian press, the Muslim Brotherhood and other political groups in Egypt must now expose the (negative) role of the United States and Israel in everything connected with (in their words): “Mubarak’s crimes against the Egyptian people.” There are further claims that President Obama, for whom the Egyptian revolution was a harsh blow, is now trying, at almost any cost, to prevent it from spreading quickly to other areas under the rule of America’s allies.
The Iranian press – always highly critical of Egyptian rulers who are seen as responsible for peace with Israel, called upon Egypt’s new leaders to try “the sweet experiment which many nations around the world are observing” – freedom from Western influence.2 In similar vein, Iranian newspapers describe the fall of U.S.-dependent regimes as striking a severe blow to the United States and Israel.3 The Chief of Staff of Iran’s Joint Armed Forces, Maj. Gen. Seyyed Hassan Firuzabadi, said that the Islamic wave sweeping the region marks the beginning of a process that will end with the downfall of Israel, and Zionists fleeing to their countries of origin. He added that signs of such fear are already clearly visible on the faces of Israeli leaders.4
The Great Shia Eroption
At the same time, Iran may seek to exploit the current fragility of the Sunni Arab world to establish Shia strongholds in Sunni Arab areas, although its aspirations in this area are usually covert. Iran is likewise taking advantage of the U.S. liberation of Iraq – although Iraqi Shiites differ from the Iranian model and generally demand a separation between religion and state – to restore Shia power in the Islamic world. Iran’s first success was recorded in Lebanon with the establishment of a Hizbullah-backed government, followed by waves of protest in predominantly Shia Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian state media in English (Press TV) and Arabic (Al-Alam News Network), both directed at non-Iranian audiences, provide wide coverage of the events and underscore protests in Shia areas throughout the Arab world.
From Siege to Counter-Attack
The shake-up in the traditional Arab order reinforces the Iranian leaders’ sense of justice in their own system and cause. After the U.S. overthrow of the Iraqi regime in 2003, Iran felt itself to be under siege, with Afghanistan to the east, Iraq to the south, the Gulf States also to the south, and Azerbaijan to the north. It now feels better placed to break out of that siege and even make inroads into neighboring regions as well as other parts of the world.
In fact, Tehran sees itself on the way to completing a regional “siege” of Israel – with Hizbullah in the north and Hamas in the south. Iran also believes that Jordan to the east will join the waves of protest, marking the fall of another nation that signed a peace treaty with Israel.
The Historic Islamic Mission
In recent months President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has frequently promoted Iranian-style revolutionary Islam as a viable alternative. At a press conference on February 23 to mark the unveiling of a supercomputer of Iranian manufacture, Ahmadinejad announced that “the world is on the verge of huge, worldwide changes and developments, from Asia to Africa, from Europe to North America.” He also called for a restructuring of the Iranian Foreign Ministry to adapt to “the historic mission of the Iranian nation today. Today we need passion, character and drive in our foreign policy. We need to employ all our capabilities and talents and all the new ideas of the revolution should back and guide our foreign policy.”5
In his messianic style, Ahmadinejad referred to a “huge and ever-growing wave,” claiming that developments in the Arab world represent only one part of this and that “we are waiting for that main upheaval and the great wave which will uproot all of those deceptions in the world.”
He called on Arab national leaders to respect the people’s desire for reform and change: “Why do they perform so badly that the people are forced to put pressure on them and call for reforms?” He also severely criticized Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi6 and condemned the harsh stance that Gaddafi adopted to suppress his people: “How can a leader bomb his own people and then say that whoever protests will be killed? This is unacceptable.”7 The Iranian Red Crescent Society even offered to send help to the Libyan people.8
Ahmadinejad also spoke critically of the West, accusing it of trying to hold back progress, prosperity and development in other countries: “Material thinking represented by Marxism and Capitalism, both of which are the same, crushed the human truth and redirected people towards selfishness and material tendencies, but the Islamic revolution of Iran renewed the main identity and the true nature of people…the leaders of arrogance were shouting that they wanted to nip the revolution in the bud, but now the revolution has taken them by the throat in their own palaces. They are inactive and are retreating now and are opposed by free people who are moving on a perfect path and are putting pressure on them.”9
The Islamic Revolution as Role Model
The Iranian leadership sees the turmoil in Arab countries as an “Islamic awakening in the Arab world” against all “despotic” Arab rulers, who are seen as traitors to the Islamic Revolution initiated by Khomeini, and commends Iran’s steadfast resilience in the face of Western efforts to undermine and compromise its independence:
- In a Friday prayer sermon delivered on February 4 at Tehran University, religious leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said: “The Iranian nation is seeing for itself how its voice is heard in other regions of the world. Today’s events in North Africa, Egypt, Tunisia and certain other countries have another sense for the Iranian nation. They have special meaning….This is the same as an ‘Islamic awakening,’ which is the result of the victory of the big revolution of the Iranian nation.” The Iranian leader referred to Iran’s independence since the revolution and its lack of dependence on the West, saying: “The former Shah used to seek U.S. consultation in all affairs, which means dependence on the U.S.” Speaking of the uprising in Egypt, he remarked: “The Egyptian nation feels humiliated due to the support of Hosni Mubarak’s regime for Israel and following the U.S….the feeling of being humiliated was the reason for the Egyptian nation’s uprising.”10
- Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that the outbreak of an Islamic awakening across the Middle East is the direct result of the determination and resilience demonstrated by Iran over many years in its struggle against the West. He described the people’s uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and the pro-democracy protest underway in Libya and Bahrain as miracles, with 32 years of Iranian revolution behind them. Salehi drew a comparison between the Iranian revolution of 1979 and recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa, claiming that those nations view Iran as a role model.11
- The Speaker of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) pointed out that the Western superpowers played no role in the people’s revolutions currently taking place in the Middle East. He described the weakening of the U.S. grasp in the region, saying that for years it supported dictatorial regimes around the world, but must now withdraw in the face of the widespread popular uprisings which represent a kind of Judgement Day for the U.S.12
- The head of Iran’s national broadcasting network (IRIB) said that “the slogans, inclinations and demands of the people during the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have all been inspired by the Islamic Revolution (of Iran)….What is more important is that today’s Iran has become a model for the people of those countries, of which the Westerners are very scared. Western politicians, writers and analysts have also acknowledged this influence in their speeches and articles.”13
At home, Iran successfully managed to forcibly contain the public protest which again threatened to erupt following the internal upheavals in the Arab world. The Majlis (parliament) issued a statement noting: “The sorrowful incidents which have occurred in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Morocco and the merciless killing of people by the despotic rulers are reminiscent of the crimes perpetrated by all dictators who tried to remain in power throughout history….We, the representatives of the great Iranian nation, condemn these crimes and once again announce that we strongly back the Islamic nations’ campaigns.”14
First We Take Bahrain
Iran’s recent successes, growing confidence, and progress towards a nuclear weapon inspire hope in the hearts of oppressed Shia populations throughout the Arab world, particularly in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. Iran is investing resources in furthering this activity, with a focus on the Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds force. Lebanese Hizbullah activists are also working on Iran’s behalf in Iraq, the Gulf States, and Egypt to disseminate the Shia message and encourage Shiites to oppose the regimes, while also trying to convert Sunnis to Shiism.
In this context, Bahrain represents the soft underbelly. A number of senior Iranian commentators have referred to Bahrain in the past as the 14th Iranian province, including Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, former Speaker of the Iranian Majlis, and Hossein Shriatmadari, editor-in-chief of the conservative Kayhan newspaper, who is close to the Iranian leader.15 Iran has claimed sovereignty over the island kingdom of Bahrain since it was under Persian rule for two centuries beginning in 1602. When Britain decided to withdraw its troops from the Gulf in 1968, Iran renewed its claim of sovereignty, but in a 1970 plebiscite sponsored by the United Nations, the island’s residents decided on independence rather than annexation to Iran. In 1971 Bahrain was recognized as an independent country. Thereafter, the Shah abandoned Persian claims, but these have been heard again since the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Egyptian President Mubarak visited Bahrain in 2008 to express his support against a background of Iranian threats.
The Sunni Bahraini royal family fears repeated attempts at destabilization by Iran, using Shia opposition elements. Shiites represent over 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, some of whom are Arab and some Persian. However, they do not serve in any positions of power or have any influence over what takes place in the kingdom. Some were arrested last year in a preventive action by security forces.
On two occasions, Bahrain accused Iran of subversion on Bahraini territory: in 1996 the kingdom exposed a local Hizbullah cell calling itself the Military Wing of Hizbullah-Bahrain, detained many of its operatives, and deported some. Similar claims arose in 1981 when Bahrain exposed the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which attempted to carry out a coup on its territory.
Now, in light of recent changes in the Arab world, the weakness of Arab leaders, and the renewal of protest in Bahrain, the kingdom fears a combination of stronger Iranian involvement and highly motivated demonstrators as a spin-off of the protest momentum in other Arab nations.
The U.S. Fifth Fleet is headquartered at Bahrain, serving as a base to defend the Gulf States from an Iranian threat. The U.S. has urged Bahraini leaders to continue promoting reform and democratic processes in the kingdom. But at the same time it fears an Egyptian-style scenario, with the loss of this important base in the Persian Gulf. Iran has stepped up naval exercises in Gulf waters in recent years, while continuing to maintain dormant cells for terrorism and insurrection in Bahrain and other Gulf nations, awaiting the moment to order an upswing in Iranian subversive activity in those countries.
Tehran feels that now is the right time to step up its intervention in events in the Gulf States, especially among the Shia population. In nearby Saudi Arabia, there is a growing fear of a greater Shia challenge to the kingdom. A change of regime in Bahrain could result in greater marginalization of the United States in the Gulf and the further reinforcement of Iran’s status as a key force in the region, representing an intrinsic threat to the small Gulf States.
In summary, the collapse of the old Arab order in the moderate Sunni countries of the Middle East is, at least in the short-to-medium term, favorable to Tehran and has significantly improved that country’s geo-strategic status and its ability to promote an ambitious agenda, which it defines as “a change in regional equilibrium.” It is taking advantage of the current commotion in the Arab world and Western confusion to intensify its intervention and influence throughout the neighboring Persian Gulf, as well as in other regions that were formerly under U.S. and Western influence, while also exploiting the assets of Hizbullah, Syria, and Hamas.
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2. Resalat, February 20, 2011.
3. Quds, February 24, 2011.
4. “Iran,” February 26, 2011.
5. Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, January 31, 2011.
6. IRINN, February 23, 2011.
7. IRINN, February 23, 2011.
8. IRNA, February 23, 2011.
9. Fars News Agency, February 5, 2011.
12. IRNA, February 25, 2011.
14. Mehr News, February 23, 2011.
15. In July 2007, the editor of Kayhan called Bahrain an Iranian province. “The governments of the Gulf States were established as a result of the direct intervention of world (Western) arrogance and are accused by their populations of collaboration with the Zionist entity…they know that the earthquake that happened in Iran (the Islamic Revolution) will, sooner or later, bring about the collapse of their illegal regimes.” In another article, the editor wrote: “A few decades ago Bahrain was an Iranian province, but split away from Iran because of the agreement signed between the Shah and the U.S. and British governments.”
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IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall is an expert on strategic issues, with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East.