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Opinion: Appeasing a tougher Tehran

By surviving its internal challenge, the Iranian regime has emerged stronger.

Iranian worshipper
A worshipper shouts anti-U.S. and anti-Israel slogans as he holds a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, during Friday prayers in Tehran, June 11, 2010. (Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)

NEW YORK — One year after the tainted presidential election provoked a popular uprising in Iran, the Islamic regime has lost significant legitimacy at home. But contrary to a seductive narrative that emerged in the West shortly after the election, Tehran’s influence in the Middle East did not diminish as the regime scrambled to ensure its survival.

The clerical hierarchy and military apparatus realized that they needed to shore up their Islamic and populist credentials after the election protests and crackdown. Their strategy was to focus outward: an imperial Iran trying to extend its dominance over the Persian Gulf and the region as a whole. As it sought to maintain its grip on power, the Iranian regime engaged in more, not less, adventurism abroad.

By surviving its internal challenge, the Iranian regime has emerged stronger. The Sunni Arab states still view Shiite Iran as a significant threat, but they are now largely resigned to negotiation with Tehran instead of confrontation. Arab leaders are no longer convinced that their best hope for countering Iran is to stick with the United States.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Middle East has been polarized between the so-called “axis of resistance” (anti-imperialist, anti-Western, led by Iran and its allies Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas) and the “axis of accommodation” (Sunni Arab states allied with the United States).

The leaders of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah rarely miss an opportunity to portray themselves as defenders of the Palestinian cause, who reflect the popular will of millions of Muslims chafing under regimes that “sold out” to the United States. The Islamic Republic spent decades nurturing its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and, more recently, in the Palestinian territories. Tehran would not allow these alliances to wither because of internal or external pressures.

The Iranian regime lost some of its populist legitimacy in the Arab world after the disputed election. In a region ruled by kings and despots, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad worked hard to cultivate his image as a Third World leader who is not afraid to stand up to the West. He had become more popular among Arabs than his own people, who were frustrated by his inability to deliver on promises to improve a stagnant economy, root out corruption and redistribute oil wealth. When Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust or threatens Israel, his rhetoric resonates more with Arabs than Iranians, who have far less at stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Still, the traditional centers of power in the Arab world — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states in the Persian Gulf — are extremely nervous about the growing influence of Iran: its nuclear ambitions, its sway over the Iraqi government and Shiite militias, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and its alliance with Syria (which some Arab regimes accuse of being a traitor to the Arab cause). Arab leaders are not worried that Iran will export the cultural aspects of Shiism; rather, they are afraid of political Shiism spreading to the Arab world through militant groups like Hezbollah.

The group’s strong performance against a far superior Israeli military during the July 2006 war electrified the Arab world, and it offers a stark contrast to Arab rulers appeasing the United States. Arab regimes fear that their Sunni populations will be seduced by Iran and Hezbollah’s message of empowering the dispossessed — creating a new and potent admixture of Arabism and Shiite identity.