The advent of the Arab Spring has challenged Iran's capacity to exert its influence in its turbulent neighbourhood. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have emerged as major players trying to occupy some of the regional political space over which revolutionary Iran's influence has been dominant so far. After the onset of the Arab uprisings, Turkey has visibly emerged as a major role player, especially in Egypt, where a transition towards democracy appears imminent, and in Syria, where the assertion of a political alternative to the country's Baathist dictatorship is still far from certain.
As the Arab pro-democracy revolt winged into Bahrain, Saudi Arabia became the vanguard of “counter-revolution” and protector-in-chief of the petro-monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia's military assertion in Bahrain to crush the pro-democracy protests there has led to the commencement of an intense open-ended cold war with Tehran, which is likely to be waged in large parts of the region. While there has been no concrete evidence of any Iranian involvement in support of the Bahraini uprising, Saudi Arabia, nevertheless, has been vociferously accusing Iran of fomenting subversion in Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Apart from Saudi Arabia, the GCC includes Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Iran is being blamed for pursuing a region-wide sectarian agenda, with the aim of foisting Shia domination across the Muslim world. In this demagogic campaign against Iran, radiating primarily from Riyadh as well as other Arab capitals, Tehran is being held responsible for aggressively masterminding the rise of the so-called “Shia-crescent” in West Asia.
While the accusation that Iran is trying to impose its version of Shia Islam on Sunnis is unsubstantiated, the rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world between Tehran and others, including Saudi Arabia, is, nevertheless, real. In this battle for ascendancy, Iran has fortified itself by bonding with Shias outside its borders, whenever the opportunity for intra-Shia ingratiation emerged.
Iran has asserted its aspirations to emerge as the leader of the Muslim world since the dawn of its Islamic revolution in 1979. Even while revolutionary Iran was in the throes of an existential war with Iraq in the 1980s, Tehran took concrete measures to exert its influence in the Levant — a large area in south-west Asia bounded by the Taurus mountain ranges, the Arabian desert and the Mediterranean Sea. For geostrategic reasons, Iran and the Syrian regime of former President Hafez al-Assad, rival to the then Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, became firm allies. Apart from reasons of realpolitik, Iran-Syria ties acquired a binding religious dimension. Like the majority of Iranians who are Shias, the Syrian leadership has belonged to the Alawite sect, which has Shia roots. Thus, the Syria-Iran alliance acquired a reinforcing faith-based dimension, which imparted steel to a political arrangement that was meant to enforce a favourable regional balance of power.
The Syria-Iran alliance subsequently expanded to include Hizbollah, a highly motivated group, which emerged from the matrix of the Shia underclass of southern Lebanon. Backed by the former President Assad, Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) trained Hizbollah in Lebanon's Balbek area, a cultural treasure trove known for its magnificent Roman ruins, in close proximity to the Syrian border.
The Iran-Syria-Hizbollah axis has been greatly reinforced by its shared visceral animosity towards Israel. Hizbollah's success in denting the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006, imparted to this alliance — led by Iran — an unprecedented sense of self-belief. This self-confidence was also reflected in the alliance's increasingly robust engagement with the non-Fatah factions of the Palestinian resistance, including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Damascus is currently the headquarters of the Hamas leadership in exile. Iran's influence over the Islamic Jihad as well as Hamas has also been well established.
The U.S. debacle in Iraq opened the door for Iran's assertion in Iraq, mainly through the transnational and local Shia religious, and socio-political networks. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Iran, on account of its deep-rooted connections, had emerged as the most influential external player in Iraq. With oil-rich Iraq now entering its camp, Iran has established a contiguous and autonomous zone of influence stretching from the Iranian segment of the Persian Gulf coast to the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon, passing through Iraq and Syria.
Despite the steady rise of Iranian influence over the past two decades, the Arab Spring has severely jolted Iran's strategic dominance in the Levant. This challenge has originated from Turkey, which, ironically, was, ahead of the Arab pro-democracy uprisings, fast emerging as Tehran's key ally.
Turkey has challenged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ironclad grip on power, by advocating reforms, and supporting a new power-sharing arrangement in the wake of Syrian uprising, that has been calling for a fundamental change. Tensions between Turkey and Syria have surged after Ankara opened its doors to Syrian refugees fleeing embattled border towns. The escalation of political tensions between the two is now acquiring a scary military dimension, after Syria deployed troops and heavy weapons close to the Turkish border. The friction is unlikely to end anytime soon as the Syrians have spurned the somewhat feeble political alternatives offered by Turkey to defuse the crisis.
Given the culture of vendetta and a natural disinclination to political compromise, Syria appears to have rejected the Turkish proposal of adopting in Syria the Lebanese confessional model, where power is shared among the country's majority and minority social groups. The Syrian regime is unlikely to accede to the confessional model because the ruling Alawites are in a minority. Besides, less than half-a-century ago the Alawites had been brutally marginalised before the late Hafez al-Asaad asserted himself by way of a military coup.
Turkey's attack on the Assad regime — the lynchpin for promoting Iranian influence in the Levant — has therefore bred a serious clash of interests between Ankara and Tehran.
These tensions are unlikely to ease anytime soon, as Iran and Turkey now appear to be opening up yet another battleground for confrontation, by competing for influence over the non-secular militant wing of the Palestinian leadership. After the onset of the Arab Spring, the differences between the two sides over resolution of the Palestinian conflict appear fundamental. While Iran, Syria and Hizbollah continue to advocate armed resistance, Turkey appears to open up a new paradigm for Palestinian reconciliation through dialogue.
Consistent with its activism on the Palestinian issue, Turkey appears to be seeking in post-Mubarak Egypt a new heavyweight ally as a counterweight to the Iran-led camp, which has been exercising its militant influence over the Palestinian factions. During their strategic dialogue in Ankara last month, Turkey and Egypt flagged their joint interest for shaping developments in Palestine.
Turkey and Egypt are now likely to impart further momentum to their initiative on Palestine on account of the Muslim Brotherhood factor. Since the advent of the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003, the Turks have, with considerable focus, been cultivating the pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, including the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In engaging the Muslim Brothers, Turkey's devout businessmen, organised under an umbrella organisation, MUSIAD, have extended solid financial support. The Turkish charity IHH, with possible links to MUSIAD, has also networked extensively with Muslim Brotherhood representatives. With the Muslim Brothers likely to do well in the upcoming Egyptian parliamentary elections, the Turks have positioned themselves well to develop a special relationship with Cairo.
Among the interested parties abroad, the Israelis have already sensed the possibility of a paradigm shift taking place in the manner in which regional support is being mobilised for the Palestinians. Departing from the confrontational tone that had been used by both sides since the bloodbath last year, on the Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship “Mavi Marmara,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon appeared to welcome Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's recent talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal. Speaking to Turkish mediapersons, Mr. Aylaon said that “if for instance today a declaration comes from Ankara, from the meeting of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) and (Khalid) Mashaal ‘yes they are going to go with unity'; it is also in our interests that Palestinians have unity. We know that once they sign, they sign for everybody and we don't have to worry about this.”
Faced with the serious challenge to its influence from Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the Levant and its Persian Gulf backyard, Iran, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, is already mounting a herculean effort to safeguard its core interests. In this exercise, the Iranians are actively supporting President Assad's regime in Syria. The cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia can only be expected to hot up in the foreseeable future. Fuelled by the oil wealth that both countries possess, the Iran-Saudi cold war is likely to be fought along a vast area, encompassing Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf as well as the Levant.