Opinion: Appeasing a tougher Tehran

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.

There is some precedent for this. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini inspired revolutionary zeal among nationalists throughout the Arab world. The revolution’s aftershocks were felt for a long time in the Middle East, helping, indirectly, to give rise to some militant Sunni movements and inspiring Shiites in Lebanon and Iraq.

As the Iranian regime suppressed internal dissent over the past year, it worked to maintain its influence over neighboring Iraq and all the major Shiite factions there. Since Iraq’s provincial elections in January 2009, Iran tried to revive the defunct United Iraqi Alliance, a sectarian coalition of Shiite parties that dominated the first parliamentary elections in 2005 and largely collapsed two years later.

Before the latest parliamentary vote in March, Iran helped bring together two major Shiite parties: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Iranian-backed cleric Ammar al-Hakim, and the Sadrist movement led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The final reunification took place last month in Baghdad, when the State of Law coalition headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki joined the other Shiite factions to form a single parliamentary bloc that is just four seats shy of a majority.

With Iran’s backing, this new alliance will likely claim the right to form a government despite the fact that it was created after the elections and is therefore disregarding the wishes of the Iraqi electorate. By joining this Shiite alliance, Maliki is trying to exclude his rival Ayad Allawi, whose secular coalition attracted strong Sunni support. This threatens to once again unleash the sectarian warfare that shattered Iraq from 2005 to 2007.

When Sunni Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia attempt to exert their influence in Iraq, they are often outmaneuvered by Iran. Saudi King Abdullah tried to publicly break from the Bush administration in March 2007, when he denounced, for the first time, the U.S. military presence in Iraq as an “illegitimate foreign occupation.” The king was reflecting the view of many Arabs who blame the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni regime in Iraq for emboldening Iran.

Arab leaders also blamed the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian talks on former President George W. Bush’s refusal for seven years to actively engage in Middle East peacemaking. Even limited progress on peace efforts could have provided diplomatic cover for the Sunni Arab states to cooperate more closely with the United States — and work to isolate Iran. Today, Arab leaders have little hope that President Barack Obama will be able to compel Israelis and Palestinians into substantial negotiations.

The Saudis and other Arab regimes are most concerned with their own survival. Of course, they will remain staunch U.S. allies and wary of Iran’s ascendance. But they will continue hedging their bets by appeasing a more confident Tehran. It’s the only way to survive in a tough part of the world.

Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.