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.
Two of the terrorist groups supported by Iran are as strong as ever and pose a threat to Israel, a country that Iran's president has declared should be wiped off the face of the earth. Hezbollah, a Shiite militia, is the strongest force in Lebanon and the de facto ruler of the southern part of the country. It fought a brief war with Israel in 2006 and now has tens of thousands of rockets and missiles deployed in southern Lebanon that can hit all parts of the Jewish state. As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out this week, Hezbollah has more missiles than most countries. On Israel's southern border is the Gaza Strip, controlled for the last four years by Hamas, a Sunni terrorist group that is funded, supplied and trained by Iran. Hamas terrorists have fired thousands of rockets into Israel, and recent reports indicate that they are stockpiling more rockets as fast as they can. This week Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian political party that rules the West Bank, agreed to form an interim government and work together to create the country of Palestine. This deal almost certainly came about due to concessions made by Fatah, not Hamas, which refuses to recognize or negotiate with Israel. Iran has long championed the Palestinian nationalist movement, and now it will have more opportunities to shape and direct it. Given the players involved, I would like to go on record here as predicting a Hamas takeover of the West Bank in the near future.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Egypt's leader Hosni Mubarak was the only leader in the Arab world capable of challenging Iran and seeking to limit its influence, which he identified as a threat to the region's stability. Iran openly celebrated Mubarak's recent ouster, with leaders in Teheran expressing confidence that Egypt's new government would be more friendly towards them. Unfortunately, they were right: The two countries are planning to exchange ambassadors and normalize relations that were cut 33 years ago following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. There are also troubling signs that Egypt is warming to Iran's proxy Hamas. Egypt's rapprochement with Iran and Hamas could well be a game-changer for Israel, the United States and the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have always had a complex relationship that is in some ways a bipolar one. Right now they're certainly in the down mode. In a Wikileaks document, Saudi King Abdullah urged the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake" by attacking Iran. He also told the French Defense Minister that two countries in the region didn't deserve to exist: Israel and Iran. Infuriated by the presence of Saudi forces in Bahrain to put down Shiite-led demonstrations, Iranian President Ahmadinejad warned the Saudis last month that they should "learn a lesson from Saddam's fate." This mutual antagonism may not be aired for much longer, however. The pragmatic Saudis are not known for their courage, and will not want to go it alone as the only large Arab country that opposes Iran in the post-Mubarak era. However, the Saudis will continue to oppress the restless Shiite minority living in their country, which will continue to infuriate Iran. Stay tuned for the next chapter in one of the region's most interesting relationships.
Of course, Iran also faces significant challenges. It is the subject of ostracism and harsh criticism in much of the West for its brutal suppression of internal dissent and for its nuclear program. Sanctions have been slapped on the country, and its economy has suffered as a result. Nevertheless, OPEC's second-largest oil exporter is anxiously engaged in spreading its nefarious influence worldwide, from the arming of Hezbollah and Hamas to the cultivation of friendly Latin American governments (there are Hezbollah cells in several Latin American countries). While Iran's president is an anti-Semitic Holocaust denier who believes in shooting demonstrators against the country's regime, these are unfortunately not huge negatives in the eyes of many of the region's rulers and citizens.
When Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began peace negotiations with Yasser Arafat (may his name and memory be erased) nearly two decades ago, he announced that he was attempting to make peace with Palestinians so that he could set his country's sights on Iran, its mortal enemy. While that basic dynamic has not changed, Iran is a much stronger and more influential country now than it was following the Gulf War. If Iran were to produce a nuclear weapon, all hopes for a comprehensive peace in the region would be vaporized, and Israel would be under constant threat of annihilation (the small country would be destroyed by one wave of nuclear attacks, even if it managed to launch a counterattack). Iran's announced desire to murder millions of Jews living 1,000 miles away has put the two nations on a collision course, and I believe that Israel will be forced to take extreme measures to ensure that Iran, Syria and their proxies do not acquire a nuclear weapon.
If there is indeed an Axis of Evil, its headquarters is in Teheran. The Iranian mullahs' expanding sphere of influence greatly concerns those of us who oppose terrorism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and state brutality. Our concern is heightened by the realization that as things stand now, it isn't clear what can or will be done to counter it: The UN is unwilling to impose the harshest sanctions on the country, the United States is already entangled in two wars and a bombing campaign in the region, and Egypt is making nice with Iran. Iran also represents an ideological threat that is not associated with other manifestly evil regimes like North Korea and Syria. People are not standing in line to adopt Kim Jong Il's juche philosophy or Assad's Alawite Baathism, but Ahmadinejad's combination of Islam, terrorism, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism appeals to millions. One can only hope that a way to break the growing Iranian coalition can be found soon. Ideally, this would involve a multilateral approach: As Iranians like to say, one finger can't lift a pebble. I for one am not holding my breath.
Mark Paredes served as a U.S. diplomat in Israel and Mexico, blogs for the Jewish Journal, and will begin leading tours to Israel next year for Morris Murdock Travel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.