The alleged plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to the United States triggered anxieties about Iran's policies toward Arab countries specifically Saudi Arabia, and its intentions for regional hegemony. With the advent of the Arab Spring, Iran has been attempting to affect developments in almost every nation it believes it has a claim to -- Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Many Arab nations view these actions as unwelcome Iranian interference in the internal affairs of the "Arab world," particularly Saudi Arabia.
Ideologically speaking, by proclaiming itself the safe-guarder of Islamic values Iran has been challenging Saudi Arabia's position in the Middle East for decades. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution the Islamic Republic of Iran has promoted Shia Islam over Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim world. After consolidating power, the Islamic Republic of Iran began to establish special bodies of knowledge derived from religious texts which include the Quran, Khomeini's personal writings, and Shari'a law rather than from other bodies of knowledge hailing from the Social Science, Humanities, as well as modern and International Law. Other changes included the replacement of secular judges with Islamic clerics, and the removal of all female judges. The Islamist state puts more emphasis on Shiite holidays rather than on traditional and national holidays such as Nowruz (Persian New Year). Advanced Islamic scholarship was established and Qom became the largest center for Shi'a scholarship in the world where an estimated 60,000 seminarians travel from 70 different countries.
The second important issue for Iran is the future of Iraq. Iran's actions have caused Saudi Arabia to be concerned with Iran's efforts to interfere with the ethnic and religious make-up of Iraq's future government. Iran's attempts to influence and interfere with the political process in Iraq, including its attempts to promote Shia dominated, pro-Tehran regime in Iraq's recent elections, has worried the region. Iraqis in Najaf, the epicentre of Shia Islam, say they fear that a power vacuum after the Americans leave next year will be filled by Iran. Tehran's active efforts to create a majority-Shi'a regime in Iraq have been a major concern for the Saudi Kingdom. Iran has attempted to penetrate Iraq's socio-political system in various following ways.
Militarily, they have been wielding influence through the Quds Force, a special operations wing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The Quds Force was born out of the Office of Liberation Movements, which was formed right after the Iranian revolution with the purpose of assisting and supporting radical movements, especially in the Middle East. It is now one of the five branches of the Revolutionary Guard and the most independent; its commander Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is believed to be a source of revolutionary fervor, with proximately 14,000 of its troops being drawn from elite units of other governmental branches. In terms of economy, Iran has emerged as one of Iraq's largest trading partners. With Iranian exports to Iraq surpassing $6 billion in 2011, Iran has not been significantly affected by the ongoing sanctions being imposed on it. A free-trade zone in southern Iraq has led to the movement of Iranian goods into shops in the Iraqi city of Basra. The goods include Iranian exports to Iraq such as construction materials, petrochemicals, industrial equipments, medical equipment, and food. Iran also exports gas oil to Iraqi power stations. In addition, the Iranian government has been constructing a highway designed to link Basra with Iranian commercial centers. Other projects include the construction of a branch of Iran's national bank in Baghdad to provide assistance for Iraq's economic reconstruction, according to Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, former Iranian ambassador to Iraq.
Socially, Iran has been wielding considerable influence in Iraq as well. Many powerful Shiite political parties were trained and acculturated in Iran while they were in exile during the reign of Saddam Hussein's Sunni Baath Party. After Saddam's fall many of these groups returned to Iraq to influence Iraq's politics. Iran has also been attempting to shape Iraq religiously and politically. Specifically, the regime has been attempting to create a majority-Shi'a regime in Iraq. Additionally Iran has sent thousands of religious students and scholars to the holy city of Najaf. Tens of thousands of Iranians cross the border to visit holy sites each year. In order to facilitate the exchange of religious visitors Iran has been constructing an airport in the city of Najaf.
The third issue of concern for Iran is the situation in Bahrain. Iran is accused of violating Bahrain's sovereignty and interfering in Bahrain's internal affairs in order to tilt the balance of power in favor of the Shiite population. Iran has long sought to achieve political, strategic, and religious objectives in Bahrain, more so than any other Gulf sheikhdom. As in 2009, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Shiite Iran had sovereignty over Bahrain. In 1981, Bahrain uncovered a nascent coup plot which it linked to the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain which was based in Iran. The Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated in March 21, 2011 "[Iran] supports all the popular movements which are under the slogan of Islam and (seeking) freedom." Not surprisingly, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is believed to have been an instigator of the recent unrest in Bahrain.
Fourth is the case of Syria and Iran's proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Iran's support for Hezbollah and Hamas is viewed as a destabilizing force for the Arab world by Iran. Syria's role as an Iranian proxy has presented a dilemma for neighboring Arab countries.. Syria, which was once considered by the Arab world as the "palpitating heart of Arabism" -- who was willing to give up statehood to unify with Egypt for the sake of Arab nationalism in 1958 -- is now believed to have fallen into the influence of religious clerics rather than secular political leaders. Syria's return to the arms of the Arab world would significantly shift Iran's position in the Middle East. Additionally, there are concerns that Iranian leaders have been supporting the Assad's regime technologically or militarily to help suppress the oppositions and protests.
The last issue is related to Iran's nuclear program which has been the source of ongoing tensions in the region and threatens to alter the balance of power. Various countries in the region have raised concerns about the possibility of nuclear conflict in the Middle East if Iran comes close to developing nuclear weapons. It is also believed that a nuclear Iran will hinder the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This threat has intensified since 2005 after Iran resumed development of its nuclear program after a period of inactivity.
Lastly, the Arab spring seems to have benefited the Iranian regime due to the fact that it has diverted the attention of the international community from Iranian nuclear development to the socio-political transitions in neighboring Arab nations.
This article was first published in Harvard International Review