It’s a good bet that Sheik Hassan Nasrallah loved the Egyptian uprising. The Hezbollah coup that had just taken place in Lebanon, which scarcely rippled across American newspapers in the first place, was well and truly erased from the collective consciousness as a significant regional development. When’s the last time you read a line about the UN tribunal’s pending indictment of Hezbollah for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and Hezbollah’s attempts to extort his son Sa’ad’s cooperation in scuppering it?
Similarly, Ahmadinejad and his mullahs are no doubt savoring the diversion of Western attention away from the embattled Iranian protesters and onto the carnage in Libya. I’d venture to speculate that President Obama, too, is relieved that the pressure is off him to call out Ahmadinejad directly in support of the Iranian citizens who continue to risk life and limb in yet another apparently futile attempt to evict their tormentors in Teheran. It is also certainly to the advantage of the Iranian nuclear program for Western eyes to be directed elsewhere.
Now, it’s entirely appropriate for the world to join together in condemnation of Qaddafi’s vile tactics. But it’s dangerous to American interests to focus exclusively on Libya and lose sight of the bigger picture. The party who stands to gain the most from turmoil across the Arab world — be it in Tunisia, which continues to show signs of resisting Islamist influence but remains vulnerable, to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed significant net gains as a result of the popular uprising — is the Iranian regime. The threat that that regime represents increases as attention to its provocations diminishes.
Iran has already literally tested the waters by sending two warships to Syria through the Suez Canal. That move was obviously intended to provoke Israel and the US, but was also a message to Iran’s Arab enemies, particularly Saudi Arabia. Iran already has a foothold to Israel’s west in Hamastan in the Gaza Strip. Add that to Iran’s influence over Lebanon via its newly emboldened Hezbollah tentacle, its unholy alliance with Syria, and the influence it gained in Iraq following the deposing of Saddam Hussein, and you have a deeply alarming scenario for the Saudi regime.
As Michael Slackman explains in today’s New York Times, the uprisings “shredded a regional paradigm in which a trio of states aligned with the West supported engaging Israel and containing Israel’s enemies, including Hamas and Hezbollah…The pro-engagement camp of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is now in tatters. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been forced to resign, King Abdullah of Jordan is struggling to control discontent in his kingdom and Saudi Arabia has been left alone to face a rising challenge to its regional role.”
Ali Reza Nader, an expert in international affairs with the RAND Corporation, told the Times that the Saudis fear that “the region is ripe for Iranian exploitation. Iran has shown that it is very capable of taking advantage of regional instability.” Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, former NSC staffers, said that “If these ‘pro-American’ Arab political orders currently being challenged by significant protest movements become at all more representative of their populations, they will for sure become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States.” Iran’s leaders, they said, see that “the regional balance is shifting, in potentially decisive ways, against their American adversary and in favor of the Islamic Republic.”
What can the US do about any of this? It can remind the region in clear language exactly what it stands for: not Jimmy Carter-esque democracy-lite (“Any of y’all are welcome! Jihadists, step right up!”) but true, pluralistic, liberal democracy that treasures every citizen, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation — and that actively excludes parties that seek ultimately to undermine those values. It can take better advantage of its own natural resources to reduce its vulnerability to oil extortion by unsavory regimes. It can express to populations in flux — including the Palestinians — that it will not financially or in any other way support a tilt towards extremism, which in effect would be a tilt towards Iran.
Most importantly, the US must be fully prepared for further provocations by Iran and for an eventual engagement with it, either directly or via one of its proxies. One of the most shocking revelations accorded by the tumult in the Arab world was the Americans’ evident bewilderment. The almost uniformly embarrassing performances by the President and his aides during the collapse of the Mubarak regime made clear that that scenario had never been envisioned. Obama, Clinton, Panetta, Clapper, et al were playing frantic catch-up with the whole world watching. Their awkward, tentative obliviousness was observed, no doubt with warm satisfaction, by America’s enemies in Teheran. If the US is perceived to be uncertain, about either its own core beliefs or its ability to defend them at home or abroad, it will be tested. And it won’t be given a week to dither before taking a stand.