The unprecedented revolts across the Middle East prompt an obvious question: Will Iran benefit from a new strategic order? From one perspective, it sure looks like it. Iran has allies in Lebanon, Gaza and Syria. Two longtime major American allies—Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia—are off the scene. Unrest is deepening in Bahrain, the Persian Gulf home to America's Fifth Fleet.
But the emerging narrative of an Iranian win may be premature. The recent unrest may not be undermining U.S. policies toward Iran as much as some suggest, and Iran may have much to fear from the tumult in Middle East politics.
Take, for instance, what's happened in Egypt. While Mubarak certainly viewed Iran with alarm, Egypt's role in countering Iran was limited to assisting the blockade of Gaza, a failing policy that certainly was not the linchpin to curbing Iran's influence. Egypt's regional clout has been declining steadily for years, as Mubarak's regime focused inward, on domestic troubles, and smaller Arab states such as Qatar assumed more activist roles in regional diplomacy.
Even among America's friends in the gulf, views of Iran have varied for years, as countries with sizable or majority-Shiite populations (Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) adopted more hard-line anti-Iranian positions than Qatar or Oman. The United States never had a unified anti-Iranian coalition to lose. And even before unrest began to spill over recently, Arab leaders were constrained by public opinion, which consistently indicated much more favorable views toward Iran, and its defiant anti-Western and anti-Israeli stances, than toward the United States.
Today, Iran's populist, anti-American, direct outreach to Arab publics—going around Arab rulers, such as when it argued that the uprising in Egypt was similar to the Iranian revolution in 1979—appears less relevant when the people are taking matters into their own hands. They don't need Iranian encouragement. They have their own ways to fight corrupt regimes and are doing so with largely nonviolent methods and without Iranian assistance. While much remains uncertain, particularly during what are likely to be lengthy democratic transitions, the new regional landscape has bolstered, not undermined, forces of moderation in the Middle East.
Moreover, uprisings in the Arab world have revitalized Iran's opposition movement, which many had left for dead. Since the unrest following Tehran's disputed presidential election in 2009, Iranian hard-liners have been consolidating their control within the regime and are holding on to power through brute force. Now the regime is facing more internal pressure than many thought possible just weeks ago.
The United States faces few restraints on mobilizing support for the Iranian opposition in the current environment. With the Geneva negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program faltering just as Arab revolts began spreading, and many questioning the Iranian leadership's interest in a deal, the Obama administration appears to think that it has less to lose by more vocally supporting the Iranian opposition. The administration faces less of a quandary now regarding Iran than when it debated siding with protesters in Tunisia and Egypt who were calling for the downfall of longtime U.S. friends. As events in Libya demonstrate, the tide in Washington seems to be turning away from the notion that supporting autocratic, repressive regimes is necessary for stability. These days, stability seems to depend on making sure that Arab nations' transitions out of power bring about real and lasting reforms.
In light of their recent experiences, new Arab leaders and restive populations may find the Islamic Republic's repression of its people repulsive. Indeed, it may be easier to forge a more genuine anti-Iran coalition in the Arab world based on support for opposition forces fighting for reforms, human rights and freedoms than by trying to build a coalition based on military agreements with leaders who lacked legitimacy.
Over the past decade, and certainly since Saddam Hussein was removed from Iran's enemies list, Iranian regional influence has increased as U.S. leverage has declined. Iran will try to capitalize on recent events to further this trend. But the United States, too, could capitalize on recent changes and the widespread desire for democratic reforms among Middle Eastern youth. Standing with the people isn't just consistent with American democratic values. It's also good strategy in blunting Iranian influence.
Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior political scientist at Rand Corp., a nonprofit research institution.
This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on March 4, 2011. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.