Middle East Matters: And the winner is ... Iran

Published: Monday, May 2 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, upon his arrival at al-Shaab presidential palace, in Damascus, Syria, on Thursday Feb. 25, 2010.

Bassem Tellawi, AP

Enlarge photo»

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies to identify the losers in the popular revolutions currently sweeping the region. Egypt’s Mubarak, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Libya’s Gaddafi and Yemen’s Saleh are either gone or battling to retain power. Syria’s army is machine-gunning protesters in the streets, and Saudi forces are assaulting Shiite demonstrators in neighboring Bahrain. Israel feels increasingly threatened from all sides. However, it is also important to identify the two "winners" in the Middle East, which I plan to do in this and next week's columns. Champagne corks are popping in Iran and Turkey amid the recent turmoil, and it’s important to understand why.

By any objective measure, the influence of Iran and its state religion, Shia Islam, have grown enormously in the past decade. Iran’s chief rival was Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, whose invasion of Iran in 1980 ignited a bloody 8-year war that witnessed the use of chemical weapons and produced 1.5 million casualties. Hussein was deposed by American troops in 2003, and Iraq’s current government is led by a Shiite prime minister (there are twice as many Shiite Muslims in Iraq as Sunni Muslims.) With American troops scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of this year, there is every reason to expect that Iran will take advantage of the resulting power vacuum and continue to attempt to influence (and perhaps subvert) the unstable government of its onetime nemesis.

To its east, Iran is actively involved in supporting the northern and western tribes of Afghanistan, another country with an unstable government dependent on the support of Western troops. Many people forget that Iran worked very hard to topple the Taliban following 9/11. Not only were the Taliban Sunnis, but they had slaughtered many Shiites during their bloody reign and murdered 10 Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. Nonetheless, in yet another application of the Arab proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Iran in recent years has been accused of arming the Taliban in support of their efforts to drive coalition troops from Afghanistan. If this were to happen, President Hamid Karzai’s government would be greatly imperiled, and Iran would have many opportunities to cause mischief with its traditional allies in the country (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks). This could easily produce yet another Afghan civil war. The only force preventing the Iranians from doing this is the Western coalition army, and it won’t be there forever.

Across the Persian Gulf from Iran sits Bahrain, a small 33-island country that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Although 70 percent of its population is Shiite, Bahrain has been ruled by the same Sunni royal family since 1783. Shiites have been protesting the family’s rule since February, and their activism has so alarmed the Saudis that they sent troops across the border to help put down the revolt last month. Were the Shiite majority to overthrow the government, it is quite possible that the Fifth Fleet would have to find friendlier waters for its ships, while Iran would again be in a position to place a neighboring country within its sphere of influence. Whatever happens in Bahrain in the coming months, the Shiites have awakened. This can only be good news for their coreligionists in Iran.

The Syrian Baathist regime's bloody crackdown on protesters may offend Western sensibilities, but it certainly doesn't bother the mullahs in Teheran, who are no slouches when it comes to firing on their own crowds. Of far greater interest to them is the Syrians' refusal to cut ties to Iran despite many entreaties by U.S. and European governments. For Assad & Co., the presence of an American ambassador in Damascus and trading privileges with Europe may be nice, but Syria's ties to Iran are more important than these carrots offered by the West. Iran and Syria have supported terrorist groups for decades, and this collaboration has apparently forged a solid relationship that is unlikely to be broken while Assad is in power. If he is overthrown, however, the country's majority Sunnis will almost certainly seize power. They may or may not be less friendly to Iran, given the close military ties between the countries.

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