There are many people who feel like the biggest loser from the wave of revolution sweeping the Arab world. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in his iron cage, the Great Loon of Libya sweating it out in his hideaway, embattled German Foreign Minister Guido Westervelle trying to tough out mounting calls for his resignation after he mishandled Germany’s response to the NATO mission in Libya, Italians who bet on ‘stability’ in Tripoli and Damascus: they all have their claims.
But the mullahs of Iran increasingly look like the biggest losers of all. Iran’s unwavering support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has brought it under fire from Arabs, cancelling decades of painstaking effort to position Iran as the leader of Islamic resistance to the West and to Israel. According to the Wall Street Journal:
A new poll the Arab-American Institute conducted in six Arab countries and released in July showed Iran’s popularity has fallen drastically. The poll, taken during the first three weeks of June, asked more than 4,000 Arabs questions that included whether Iran contributed to peace and stability in the Middle East. In Egypt, only 37% had a favorable view of Iran, compared with 89% in 2006. In Saudi Arabia, the number dropped to 6% from 85%, while in Jordan it fell to 23% from 75%.
“This whole arrangement between Syria and Iran is in deep trouble because of the Arab Spring. The geopolitics and the Arab street are changing, and it’s leaving them exposed,” said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University.
Tehran was happy to support uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, where Sunni rulers resisted its claims to Islamic legitimacy and regional leadership. But sort-of Shi’a Syria is a different story. Syria is Iran’s connection to Hamas and Hezbollah, and the strident support for a regime that billed itself as the leader of the Arab world reinforced Iran’s effort to remake its image from a Persian sectarian regime to the true Islamic leader of the toiling Arab masses.
All that is in tatters now, and Iran is joined at the hip to the most hated regime in the Arab world. Turkey seems to be making a bid to pull Hamas away from its Syrian-Iranian allies; losing its connection to the radically-chic wing of Palestinian resistance will undercut Tehran even more. The Assad regime is damaged goods now, hated and scorned across the Arab world — but Tehran needs it more than ever.
Many critics of the Iraq War pointed to Tehran’s apparent gains across the region as proof that the strategy was deeply flawed; in fact the realignments taking place across the region these days suggest that Iran is being pushed toward the fringes of Middle East politics. With Turkey more of a factor than before, and Saudi Arabia and its allies focused on their Shi’a religious and political archrivals, there is less room for Iranian meddling than the mullahs had hoped. Nothing lasts forever in the kaleidoscopic world of the Middle East, but for now Iran will have to face the critics of its nuclear program with fewer allies and less ability to summon public opinion to its side.