New Arab Democratic Governments May Neither Demonize Nor Embrace Iran

Suez Canal Iran warship(Pictured: Iranian warship passing through the Suez Canal.)

While popular fodder for Fox News’ commentators, the notion that the Arab world of 2011 in any way resembles an Iran of 1979 has gained relatively limited traction in our mainstream papers of record. But if Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are stuck in 1979, some journalists have yet to dislodge themselves from the Cold War.

“Iran has already benefited from the ouster or undermining of Arab leaders,” reports the New York Times, an assessment attributed to unnamed “analysts.”

But while the subsequent spike in oil prices has probably meant an extra infusion of cash into an Iranian regime saddled by sanctions, other concrete indications of this supposed Iranian influence have yet to manifest themselves.

The Times points to two Iranian warships that Egypt’s new leaders allowed to pass through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, the first such passage permitted since 1979. But however much hand-wringing this precipitated in the region’s capitals, it’s hard to imagine that it evinced more than a shrug from an ordinary Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, or Bahraini. The Times further laments that, with respect to Israel, the “pro-engagement camp of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is now in tatters.”

If all this sounds like a reach, it probably is.

“By allowing the Iranian ships to transit the Canal,” explains Time’s Tony Karon, “Egypt’s military rulers are signaling they want to normalize ties with Iran. That doesn’t make them proxies of Tehran any more than Iraq, Turkey or, for that matter, Brazil are. They’re simply opting out of a U.S. regional strategy of confronting Iran.” Nor should the apparent refusal of ordinary Egyptians to facilitate the strangulation of Gaza render them partners in Iran’s support for Hamas.

Indeed, ordinary Arabs have been by and large relatively unconcerned about Iran. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, they tend to perceive far greater threats to regional stability from the United States and Israel, an orientation that a cursory review of the region’s recent history might well justify. And given the Western backing for most of the regimes presently under siege, the near complete absence of anti-American or anti-Israeli sloganeering from the uprisings is frankly remarkable. If anything, it should indicate that the authors of the extraordinary revolutions sweeping the region are firmly committed to the democratic futures of their own countries — not to the regional ambitions of outsiders.

Additionally, both the Times and the Washington Post have stoked concerns about restive Shiite populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, areas that the Post has called “a focus of Iranian influence.” But to graft an Iranian power play onto the democratic aspirations of these aggrieved populations is to take a page from the sectarian playbook of the ruling Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It also harkens back to a more general American paranoia about the Shiite sect, which has been difficult to erase since the Iranian hostage crisis and has left American policy makers almost to this day wondering whether Osama bin Laden is a Sunni or Shiite.

Any notion that the democratic aspirations of Shiites (or anyone else) could be abetted by Iranian meddling is quickly dispelled by the behavior of the Iranians themselves. Just days after disingenuously praising Egypt’s and Tunisia’s “Islamic liberation movements,” the Iranian regime cracked down hard on its own pro-democracy protestors. Should they come into being, nascent democratic governments in the Arab world may carry on relatively normalized relations with Iran. But few democrats in the region will overlook the bankruptcy displayed by Iran’s leaders.

In the end, the popular rejection of U.S.-backed autocrats certainly amounts to a diminished American influence in the region. But it is a relic of Cold War analysis to suppose that the influence lost by one regional hegemon must automatically accrue to another. There is simply little evidence that Iran has gained where the U.S. has lost.

The real fundamental change has been the audience for such influence – where it was once a coterie of aging autocrats, it is now the people themselves. If the U.S. is concerned about Iran, the Obama administration must prove itself a greater friend of democracy than Iran’s clerics. Let’s not make that more difficult than it sounds.

Peter Certo is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus as well as the Institute of Policy Studies Balkans Project and the Global Day of Action on Military Spending.