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Iran’s Foreign Policy vis-à-vis Arab Uprisings

The following is a contributing piece from guest writer Ladan Yazdian. Ms. Yazdian is a foreign affairs and Middle East specialist. She holds a BA and an MA in political science. She is currently a Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, working on global security, foreign policy, international relations, and human rights. Iran’s Foreign Policy  vis-à-vis Arab Uprisings

In the wake of the spate of recent Arab uprisings, Iran has tried to reframe these movements as Islamic awakenings inspired by its own 1979 Islamic revolution. Strategically, it is logical that the Islamic Republic would be watching the latest developments with concern, due to potential regional instability that could force Iran to change its geopolitical calculations. More importantly, just as the effects of the Iranian uprising resonated throughout the Arab world, so too will the Arab-inspired events of the region undoubtedly have a marked influence on the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.

Iran’s diverse civil society and non-violent resistance, which reached its peak in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, are still the most fundamental threat to the regime’s existence. These concerns manifest themselves in the Islamic Republic’s inconsistent political postures towards the countries in turmoil, most notably Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria.

The Arab uprising will naturally force Iran to reshape its foreign policy calculations in the Arab world and the greater region from a geopolitical perspective. Iran is concerned that any freedoms gained by the nations in surrounding countries will spur its own people into rejuvenating their own resistance. Iran’s foreign policy is considered by Western nations and neighboring countries to be aggressive due to Iran’s history of supporting non-state actors and pariah regimes that operate outside the accepted bounds of international law as well as those that are deemed more susceptible to Iran’s influence. Let’s look at key states in the region that are experiencing internal revolt.

Yemen – Iran’s priority in Yemen has been centered around countering and reducing Saudi Arabia’s influence. In the absence of a strong leadership in Egypt and Iraq, Iran finds a powerful rival in Saudi Arabia and the alliances it creates with the West and GCC countries. The latter have been active in resolving Yemen’s eight-month old conflict.
The crisis in Yemen has become more complicated as Ali Abdullah Saleh remains in Saudi, recovering from wounds caused by an explosion in his presidential compound. The Pro-government forces, Yemeni Republican Guards, are battling on at least two fronts; against protesters around the capital city of Sanaa, and against armed separatists and Al-Qaeda jihadists in and around the southern province of Abyan. Suicide bombings in the south have turned some tribes against Al-Qaeda, which is currently operating in Yemen under the name Ansar Al-Sharia, or the Army of Islamic Law, with the intention of establishing an Islamic state in Yemen. Aside from Al-Qaeda, anti-government opposition parties, not seemingly united in their demands, have nonetheless attempted to form a council with the intent of pressuring Saleh into relinquishing power.

Meanwhile, it appears as though Iran prefers that the Yemeni opposition groups, anti-Saleh tribes, and youth movement groups form a coalition with the Al-Houthi against Saleh’s American-backed government. Iran may feel that it has sufficient influence on the Al-Houthi and other youth opposition groups, and can nudge them towards the formation of a national council and present a serious unity government before possible return of Saleh into power or his potential replacement.

Uniting the opposition, however, has thus far proven unsuccessful as the council was rejected by more than half of its members as well as by the separatist groups in the south and the Al-Houthi Shia group in the north.
Supporting the Yemeni opposition would help Iran exert influence over the strategic Straight of Bab-el-Mandeb in the Red Sea; undermine the role of Saudi Arabia and the United States; and make up for any loss it might experience with Syria and Bahrain, should the Syrian regime collapse.

Bahrain – Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the opposition in Bahrain took to the streets to demand better political representation and government concessions for the country’s Shia community. Bahrain’s royal family and the government attributed the unrest to extremists and accused the protesters of having a sectarian agenda supported by Iran. From the very onset of the unrest, the Islamic Republic’s media outlets, such as Press TV and Al-Alam, as well as pro-government Farsi websites, strove to keep the spotlight on Bahrain’s uprising.

Similar efforts have been made to undermine talks between the Sunni-led government and the majority Shia opposition bloc. Major opposition group Al-Wifaq, which had previously agreed to participate in the talks, later reneged, increasing speculation that the Islamic Republic is intent on sabotaging the national dialogue backed by the United States.

In Bahrain, Iran has sought to make the American presence costly while seeking influence within the opposition under the mantra of protesting injustice against the Shia community, which would be expected from Iran. The Islamic Republic has long had issues with the territorial and political leaning of the island’s royal family. In recent years, the Bahraini leadership has complained about Iran’s attempts at fomenting unrest within its Shia community for Iran’s own political gains aimed at countering the Saudi influence.

Egypt – The uprising in Egypt has been instrumental in inspiring the people of Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, but it has thus far failed to bring about closer diplomatic ties between Egypt and Iran. Despite the interim Egyptian government’s initial interest and the friendly response from Iran’s foreign ministry, the Egyptians have been reluctant to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic following the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

The unprecedented passage of two Iranian naval ships through Egypt’s Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea last year has not helped in raising the confidence level between the two countries. In the current political climate, Egyptians seem to try to keep their close ties with the Arab world rather than entering into an uncertain relationship with the Islamic Republic. Egypt’s ambivalence stance in restoring full–scale diplomatic relations with Iran comes amid accusations that the Iranian embassy has been actively seeking to open communication channels with all Egyptian political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. This has fueled speculations that Iran may be attempting to promote the type of political Islam that many feared would govern the post-Mubarak Egypt.

Syria – More than five months into the uprising, the conflict with the Assad regime has turned into a bloody stalemate. The resilience of the Syrian people has forced world leaders to recalibrate their positions towards Syria. According to Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Ramin Mehmanparast, however, for Iran “Syria is an exception”. With two security pacts currently in place, Syria is Iran’s key strategic Arab ally in the region. In exchange for its role in the partnership, Syria has received political and economic benefits and support during the massive uprising that has engulfed the country. There has been significant military cooperation between the two countries in addition to bilateral support for proxy elements in Lebanon.

Iran has been accused of advising Syria on repression methods aimed at crushing dissent. This in turn has angered Syrian activists, who during the protests, demonstrated their displeasure towards the Iranian government by burning Islamic Republic flags and pictures of Ayatollah Khamenei.

Iran’s main objective in keeping the Syrian regime in power, besides having an ally and supporter, is to maintain access to the Levant region and Israeli borders via Hezbollah. Iran is aware, however, that the fall of Assad would have serious regional repercussions. Knowing that it cannot indefinitely buttress a weakened Assad regime, Iran has asked the Syrian regime to listen to the demands of its people, while discrediting the opposition, labeling them as agents of the West.

The Islamic Republic’s foreign policy has been held hostage by its perpetual anti-Western stance, which has considerably limited its ability to actively participate in the global arena. The double-standard seen in Iran’s policy toward the Arab Spring is not new. The political ideology to which the Islamic Republic subscribes does not deter it , for example, from taking the side of Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, or remaining silent when there are mass killing of Muslims in China or Chechnya. Such actions, combined with sectarian meddling and the perception that Iran does not promote peace in the Middle East, has, according to a new IBOPE Zogby International poll, seriously damaged Iran’s reputation in the Arab world.

The Islamic Republic is correct in viewing recent events in Arab countries with trepidation and concern. These uprisings may very well pose a fundamental problem for the core of the Iranian regime and raise hopes that the era of autocracy is over as Arabs across the region struggle to participate in their political affairs. In addition, the resilience of the Arab people can energize and inspire the citizens of other countries in the region in their struggle against dictatorship and totalitarian regimes.

In this new wave of Arab awakening, every country that has risen against injustice has its own unique set of circumstances. Taken as a whole, however, even if these movements do not lead to democracies, they raise hope for ushering in a new era of increased participation and greater government accountability, a prospect that the Islamic Republic is not ready to accept.