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Who Is the Middle East's Biggest Loser From the Arab Revolutions?

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.

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  • Peter

    You describe Hamas as being part of the “Palestinian resistance.” Hamas is not resisting Israel; it’s goal is to destroy Israel. Furthermore, the same is true for the PLO, which was formed years before Israel’s incursion into Gaza or the West Bank (more properly known as Judea and Sameria). Hamas is not a resistance movement; it’s a terrorist organization.

    I remain a devoted fan and look forward to more posts from you!



    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Peter: I’m not sure why it can’t be both.

  • WigWag

    I think Professor Mead is absolutely right about this. An Iran “expert” who doesn’t is Flynt Leverett who directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Leverett is both an extremist and an iconoclast who was dubbed (playfully I assume) by his former New America Foundation colleague, Steve Clemons, as a “crack-cocaine realist.”

    Leverett runs his blog “The Race for Iran” with his wife who is as eccentric as he is. A former AIPAC functionary, she now seems barely able to control her giddiness every time some Iranian Mullah or other threatens to destroy Israel.

    In any case, Leverett has a post up now where he specifically repudiates the point of view that Mead and others are expressing about Iran’s increasing isolation in the Islamic world. The post, entitled “Iran and Syria: America’s Middle East Pundits Get It Wrong (Again)” can be found here,

    Leverett suggests that Iran is better positioned with the Arab world than ever. He points (correctly) to the dramatic improvement in Iran’s relationship with the Egyptian Government. Leverett is dubious that the Assad regime is in real danger; he says that more than 50 percent of Syrians support Assad. He also suggests that Iran’s relationship with Syria won’t diminish even if Assad falls. He argues that Iran does not need Syria to leverage its relationship with its surrogates, Hamas and Hezbollah.

    I tend to think this is all wishful thinking on Leverett’s part. He is so intensely attached to the notion that the Iranian regime is terribly misunderstood, that he is unable to see the forest from the trees. Actually, I think it’s more than his notion that he is attached to; Leverett seems besotted with the Iranian regime itself.

    Those interested in the subject might find his point of view interesting even if it is idiosyncratic.

  • Ken Moore

    The WSJ material is from Zogby polls linked and partly summarized here. Iran losing public opinion

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    I have said all along that the Arab Spring is only an early result of the American Cultural attack, which was putting a seed of American Culture in Iraq. It’s not just the Iranians that are losing approval, but all authoritarian elements of middle east cultures. Any Turkish increase in influence is an illusion, based on the falling influence of all the authoritarians. In fact it is the seed of American Culture in Iraq whose influence is growing and driving events.

  • Nathaniel

    What the poll indicates more than anything is how fickle public opinion can be, and whether there is such a thing at all. For instance, will this poll be relevant in six months if Israel bombs the Iranian nuclear reactors? Moreover, would anything significant have changed in the region because of increased vitriol against Israel (besides whatever damage is done to the Iranian nuclear progam)?

    And the Iranian gains are from the fact that Iraq has switched columns from being its chief adversary to something between an ally and a vassal. Sure Iraqis might be resentful of an Iranian strong hand now and then, but it’s not like Iran has to worry about having one of the world’s largest armies training its sights on Iran’s borders anymore either, and its not like the Iraqi Shia wanted it another way (for now).

    Lastly, why wouldn’t the same forces pressuring Assad (heretical minority rule) apply to the Eastern Gulf? Oh wait, similar have already occurred to some extent in Bahrain. Oil money gives the Gulf monarchs a longer lifeline, but it couldn’t save Qaddafi…

  • jzsnake

    What if???????????????? Oh wait…..Sheesh!

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