Over the past 14 months of uprisings in the Arab world, Iran has steadily lost influence throughout the Middle East. Recognizing this is crucial for understanding the way in which Palestine, Syria and other key strategic battlegrounds now play into Iranian calculations, and how new opportunities have emerged for both Arabs and the West.
Iranian leaders seem to have expected that the uprisings would advance their strategic interests: that the "Arab Spring" would turn into an "Islamic Awakening" (their preferred term for the uprisings from the outset). Instead, Iran has been confronted with the reality that post-dictatorship governments in countries like Egypt are unlikely to be more responsive to Iranian concerns. Arab-Persian cultural and national rivalries, Sunni-Shiite sectarian suspicions, ideological differences and, probably most importantly, persistent national interests mean that new governments in the Arab world, even those with significant Islamist influence, would probably not be more inclined towards Iran's interests.
Iran has proven to be the big loser in the Arab Spring, having plummeted from the position of self-proclaimed champion and leader of "resistance" to Israel and the West to being broadly perceived as a sectarian and partisan player. Its "pan-Islamic" cover is finally blown. Instructively, Turkey -- a Sunni power that boasts a purportedly "moderate" and constitutionalist Islamist government as opposed to Iran's Shiite and self-proclaimed "revolutionary" Islamist government -- stands to become the primary regional beneficiary, depending on the outcome of the Syrian uprising.
The uprisings have redefined the regional order in largely sectarian terms, essentially pitting Sunni Arab governments, Islamist organizations and popular opinion against Shiite and other religious minority forces. Because Iran has lost so much influence, it has had to abandon its campaign of "soft power" -- attempting to win over Arab hearts and minds -- and has been forced to resort to "hard power." This has meant retrenching its alliances with openly sectarian forces and fringe groups. It has recently been attempting to win, or buy back, the loyalty of Gaza-based leadership in Hamas and develop much more extensive relations with Islamic Jihad. The recent flare up of violence between Gaza militants and Israel was an ample demonstration of this "hard power" approach by Tehran. Backing the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad at all costs in the bloody and protracted conflict in Syria has already cost Iran and its sectarian Arab allies such as Hezbollah and some Iraqi groups, significant and potentially irreparable losses across the Middle East.
The Syrian regime has provided Iran strategically vital access to the Mediterranean Sea and the Levant. It constitutes Iran's primary conduit to its Arab allies and clients including Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and those parts of Hamas that remain aligned with it. It has played a crucial role in laundering and providing cover for Iranian financial and materiel support to these clients. Tehran has already paid a huge political price for its support of the Syrian regime and its loss would be devastating.
The unleashing of Islamic Jihad in Gaza in its recent confrontation with Israel also demonstrates the centrality of undisguised "hard power" to the Iranian strategic calculation. Facing a potential Israeli and/or American attacks on its nuclear facilities, Iran's deterrence is enhanced by demonstrating its ability to act through proxies and, if attacked, to potentially expand the theater of operations. There are forces in the US and Israel openly pushing for war with Iran and they are quite happy to quote freely from Iran's own bellicose and defiant rhetoric. The issue of war with Iran is at the top of the American foreign policy agenda. Its advocates and opponents are locked in a debate whose outcome is still undetermined.
The Arab uprisings began as pro-democracy rebellions demanding good governance, transparency and dignity. However, the social forces that dominated these protests lacked the ability to take advantage of the newly opened political spaces they created. Islamist parties have been the immediate beneficiaries given that they were prepared, organized, and had an established brand on which to campaign. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the final outcome of these very complex and ongoing transformations would simply devolve to the long-term benefit of Islamists and no one else. Their early successes are merely a snapshot in a developing process.
A multifaceted social and political transformation has been unleashed but its outcome is yet to be decided. This means that there is a strategic opportunity to help shape that outcome. Iran and its allies are already heavily involved in trying to influence it. The West needs to decide what it wants to happen in the Middle East and how it is going to promote it, in short to form and implement its own strategy.
The Arab people deserve the opportunity to join the rest of the humanity in the pursuit of freedom from want and oppression, and to live in a political order based on the consent of the governed. Post-dictatorship Arab societies must be based on a healthy balance between the right of the majority to form governments while protecting the inalienable rights of individuals, women and minorities. These uprisings provide opportunities to promote an Arab political culture based on the rights and responsibilities of the individual citizen and ensuring a healthy relationship with the broader society and state in which they can participate fully and freely. The West, and the world in general, have a strong stake in ensuring that this happens in order to expand the circle of regional and global stability.
Palestine is a key battleground in this struggle. Constructive forces are trying to develop positive changes on the ground, in spite of the deep freeze in negotiations with Israel, and other political difficulties. These efforts are particularly structured around the institution-building program developed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But at present they are not receiving the requisite international support. A committed and substantive effort is required to provide the advocates for good governance, pluralism and free enterprise the tools and resources they need to promote these ideals. Victory in this ultimate symbolic conflict, Palestine, will yield political dividends across the region.
Islamists have a real constituency and have a right to vie for power through periodic elections and other legitimate, peaceful means. They should be engaged in a contest for public support by other Arabs offering different solutions and competing ideas. Groups that espouse the ecumenical, socially-conscious and universal ideals that informed the uprisings characterized as the "Arab Spring" must be encouraged and organized to engage in this competition.
The Iranian regime stands for the antithesis of such values, and has ruthlessly crushed its own "Green Movement" protests. Seizing the strategic opportunity to limit the influence and hegemony of theocratic movements and religious dictatorships in the Arab world is vitally important for building a better Arab future and securing Western interests. This is a crucial time to stand on principle and defend universal values.
Ziad J. Asali, MD, is President of the American Task Force on Palestine.
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