Iran and the Arab Spring

The mass uprisings sweeping the Middle East have fed a competition for regional influence as the old order continues to totter. In the thick of things is Iran, which has great interest in the viability of its embattled Syrian allies, the Saudi role in Bahrain, and the leadership turnover in longtime rival Egypt. "The region's strategic balance is at stake," write experts Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books. As a sign of alarm over a sectarian shift, Riyadh sent its troops into Bahrain to support the Sunni-minority regime, arguing that protests were orchestrated by Tehran to support the rise of Bahrain's Shia majority. In many countries, "it increasingly looks like a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia," says Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Amid this uncertainty, questions remain about how the upheavals affect Iran's regional influence and what that will mean for U.S. efforts to persuade Iran to give up its controversial nuclear program. The downfall of pro-U.S. Arab regimes in the region, an emboldened Arab public angry at Israel and hostile to U.S. foreign policy, and growing assertiveness of Shiites could benefit Iran's standing in the region, and could blunt U.S. efforts to rally regional states against Iran's nuclear program, some experts worry.

Soon after the uprisings in the Middle East began in January, some predicted that "Iran [would] be the main beneficiary of regional instability." Most experts believe the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which removed Tehran's main rivals, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, have already enhanced Iran's power in the region. Tehran has also benefited from high oil prices caused by upheavals in the region, which blunted the impact of international sanctions. Iran's control of regional non-state actors such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Gaza-based Hamas could also bolster its future influence, say some analysts. "Combined, both organizations can (and when necessary will) muster political support for Iran among Arabs through their control of private media networks," writes Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) .

However, Iran's backing of President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, its tumultuous domestic politics, and the government's crackdown on demonstrations led by opposition leaders in 2009 and again this spring, has limited Tehran's ability to benefit from the Arab uprisings.

The anti-government protests in the region could also travel to Iran, say some analysts, noting how the country faces a youth bulge and rising unemployment, similar to conditions in other Mideast states coping with ferment. Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation says a potentially powerful civil disobedience movement motivated by environmental, economic, and social issues is also growing in Iran, which could be much harder for the regime to control than the opposition-led Green Movement of 2009.

For Iran's Green Movement to "become a regime-changing factor, it has to essentially recreate itself into a new movement that is capable of challenging the current structure of the Iranian government," expert Vali Nasr says in this video produced by CFR as part of the new interactive "Crisis Guide: Iran." CFR's Ray Takeyh writes that the "Green Movement needs to respond to the challenge of the Arab awakening and move beyond delegitimizing the regime into confronting it on the streets."

The right U.S. policy toward Iran starts with Washington pursuing a regional policy that aligns it with the emerging, empowered Arab public and "denying Iran the ability to exploit the changing environment," writes Marc Lynch of the Center for a New American Security. In Foreign Affairs, Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey recommend that Washington develop broader relationships within Arab societies. "Helping build economic opportunities and solidify political reforms may do as much to blunt Iranian influence and regional extremism -- not to mention improve the lives of people living there -- as would simplistic containment strategies based on military partnerships and artificial blocs," they write.

This article first appeared on the Website of the Council on Foreign Relations.