The change sweeping Arab governments has been viewed as a benefit for Iran, but newly independent foreign policy is much more complex, writes Tony Karon.
A false choice between Iran and the US for Arab states
Washington saw the "hand of communism" at work everywhere during the Cold War, whether in the heroic rebellion of young black South Africans against the apartheid regime, Chileans challenging the brutality of their military dictatorship, the pacifist policies of an Australian Labor government or even India pursuing a foreign policy independent of the United States. "Those who are not with us are against us," was the underlying sentiment, reiterated by President George W Bush at the outset of his "global war on terror" - and also in the US-led Cold War against Iran in the Middle East.
No surprise, then, that the democratic tsunami sweeping the Arab world has prompted warnings in Washington that Iran would be the primary strategic beneficiary from the collapse of "moderate" Arab autocracies. Iranian officials, for their own propaganda purposes, claim the same thing: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for example, hailed the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak as an "Islamic revolution" - which earned him a rebuke from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which made clear that it was not leading the revolution, and that it shared the common goal of a democratic political order in Egypt.
Still, a steady stream of western pundits and unnamed officials from Israel and Saudi Arabia warn that regimes which fall out of the US camp inevitably become part of the Iran-led "resistance" front. They said the same, of course, about Turkey when it began to adopt a foreign policy independent of its Nato allies, challenging Israel's actions in Gaza and intervening in search of a viable diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff - distancing itself from a US regional strategy it saw as fatally flawed.
Viewed through the prism of a zero-sum conflict between a US-led alliance of Arab autocrats and Israel against an Iran-led "resistance" camp, the Arab rebellion has been nothing short of catastrophic for the anti-Iran forces. Not only has the Egyptian uprising swept away one of the key antagonists of Iran in the person of Hosni Mubarak; the fact that two Iranian warships were allowed to sail through the Suez Canal en route to Syria last week was a clear signal that the new military rulers in Cairo hope to normalise ties with the Islamic Republic, and are unlikely to support a regional strategy of confronting Tehran, much less take the lead in promoting one. Even before Egypt and Tunisia, the anti-Iran camp had suffered major setbacks in Lebanon and Iraq. Events in Bahrain, Jordan and elsewhere suggest that Arab leaders pressing hardest to confront Iran are in deep trouble.
While Israeli leaders insist they may still see the need to take military action to halt Iran's nuclear programme, they know that recent events have considerably diminished the chances of them winning even discreet Arab or US backing for such an action. And it's not just the "military option" that has been set back. Arab backing for sanctions, too, is likely to diminish, as is the impact of those measures currently in place, as regional turmoil boosts Tehran's revenues by sending oil prices soaring.
Indeed, the entire US regional strategy of organising Arab countries into an anti-Iran alliance lies in tatters. New Arab governments more responsive to their public are inevitably going to distance themselves from the US agenda. The risen Arab public is far more sympathetic to the Palestinians - and less indulgent of Israeli abuses - than Washington and some of its Arab allies have been. And that same Arab public simply doesn't share the US-Israeli-Saudi view of Iran as some sort of regional menace. It's worth remembering, for example, that in last summer's edition of the University of Maryland's authoritative annual poll of Arab public opinion conducted by Shibley Telhami, 57 per cent of respondents believed that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would have a positive effect on the Middle East!
Pressure on Iran is likely to decrease in the months ahead, particularly - as seems likely - it manages to avoid a domestic rebellion of its own. But the Iranian nuclear "peril" was always something of a manufactured crisis. The forthcoming US National Intelligence Estimate reaffirms that the regime in Tehran has yet to decide on whether to turn its growing nuclear capacity into an actual weapons programme, and its leadership is divided over wether to seek a strategic nuclear deterrent. The announcement that the Iranians have been forced by a technical breakdown to remove fuel rods from the Bushehr reactor suggests that technical problems continue to plague Iran's nuclear activities.
But whatever its current state of progress, Iran's nuclear development is simply not a priority for the newly empowered Arab public, and more accountable Arab governments are likely to distance themselves from Washington's regional strategy, pretty much as Turkey has done. That's precisely why so many US and Israeli observers paint the Arab rebellion as a win for Iran. But that conclusion is based on the flawed premise that a setback for the United States is automatically a gain for Iran. The Arab declaration of independence from Washington is anything but a declaration of loyalty to Tehran. Turkey may have built new trade and diplomatic ties with Tehran and opposed the US policy on Iran, but it has not broken ties with Washington. Its policies are genuinely independent, geared towards resolving problems rather than power bloc politics.
Arab opinion polls in recent years at one point showed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as more popular than any Arab leader, but that was simply an expression of protest at the Arab world's own leaders. More recently, some of the same polls saw Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan eclipse Mr Ahmadinejad. But the essence of the rebellion is the demand by the Arab public to choose its own leaders and shape its own destiny. Those who picked Mr Erdogan or Mr Ahmadinejad in opinion polls did so out of frustration at Arab leaders; they want more democratically accountable governments whose policies that express the popular will. And that's bad news not only for the US but also for any other foreign government that seeks to bend the Arab public to its own agenda.
Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron