Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey

With long-standing U.S. allies toppled or under pressure from unprecedented dissent across the Arab world, Michael Doran, in "The Heirs of Nasser" (May/June 2011), warns that Iran is poised to walk away from the Arab Spring a winner. In his view, the chaotic Arab political scene will allow Iran and its radical allies -- Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria -- to stoke public frustration over unmet expectations or engage in subversive provocations, thereby embroiling new regimes in the region's old conflicts. In previous periods of regional upheaval, revolutionaries such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser employed this strategy at the expense of U.S. and Western interests. Nasser played the Israel card to goad his Western-backed rivals into war, while exhorting their publics to rebel. Why, Doran argues, should one expect any less from Iran and its allies today?

Certainly, the regional shakeup will give Iran and its allies much to prey on. The Arab world's secular, liberal youth movements, often hobbled by a lack of organization and leadership, will compete with long-established parties with starkly different views of the future, be they remnants of the old regimes or Islamist forces. The region's new governments will confront economic challenges that will limit their ability to meet the expectations of a youthful and increasingly impatient public. Meanwhile, the continued Israeli-Palestinian stalemate offers further ammunition for rejectionist forces to reinvigorate the region's tired scapegoats, redirecting the conversation away from talk about the failure of domestic governance. The United States' inconsistent policies toward the Arab revolts (for example, the varying U.S. responses to Bahrain and Libya) offer more fodder for Iran's resistance narrative.

Still, although Iran and its allies will attempt to seize on these vulnerabilities to widen the gap between ruler and ruled, they are unlikely to achieve the success of Nasser. In fact, the political upheaval in the Arab world has led to at least three fundamental shifts in the regional order that have only sharpened the preexisting limitations of Iranian influence.


First, in a new political order shaped by calls for popular governance, the Iranian brand is losing its luster. Tehran's influence has always been greatest in places with entrenched authoritarianism, where it has exploited the illegitimacy of Arab rulers by highlighting their dependence on the United States and their impotence (or ambivalence) on pan-Arab issues, such as the conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. At the same time, Iran has poured salt on these wounds, aiding a variety of Shiite and Sunni extremist groups as both a challenge to the U.S.-backed security order and as a way to demonstrate its own indispensability in the region.

Although this strategy will continue, Iran will find a diminished Arab audience for it. A new type of populist force has emerged among the region's youth, who are more pragmatic and less ideological than prior revolutionaries. This movement has not turned to outside actors for support during the uprisings; the same will hold true in the aftermath, when it will look inward to address questions of economic reconstruction and institution building. Moreover, the region's pro-democracy youth see through the hypocrisy of Tehran's attempts to spin the Arab uprisings as a variation of its own Islamic revolution -- even more so after Iran's violent suppression of its own opposition Green Movement and its support for Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown in Syria.

Of course, a failure of the Arab world's popular uprisings to bring about legitimate governments could breathe new life into Iran's regional designs. But such a failure is more likely to be the result of local dynamics than of manipulation or provocation by Iran. The most probable worst-case scenario is a return to authoritarian Arab rule, possibly by military officers, who, as they move to consolidate power internally, may be uninterested in Iran and its regional agenda. And if democratic transitions do move forward and lead to an increased number of political actors vying for power, these new political players, even Islamist ones, may be wary of jeopardizing their nationalist legitimacy by turning to Iran.

Second, the "resistance bloc" that Iran leads is far less coordinated and omnipotent than Doran claims. Indeed, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria are less a coherent bloc than a temporary coalition in which local and short-term tactical interests have always trumped ideological or religious affinity. As the individual members of this bloc face mounting domestic pressures, their diverging agendas are only likely to intensify, making it difficult for Tehran to orchestrate a grand strategy.

The weakest link for Tehran right now is Damascus, which is facing a civil war and, from the Iranian perspective, looks increasingly like a liability rather than an asset. Syria has long served as Tehran's entrée onto the Arab stage, enabling it, at least symbolically, to overcome its fundamental isolation as a Persian power. Continued turmoil in Syria will jeopardize this role, depriving Iran of a key state partner in the Levant. At the same time, Hezbollah is staying out of the limelight in the Arab Spring as it focuses on building a consensus-based government and consolidating its power in Lebanon. Hamas, for its part, has refused to offer vocal support for Assad's regime against the opposition, taking care to preserve its self-image as a populist movement. The case of Iraq offers an instructive lesson on the limits of nonstate actors in the resistance bloc: the fratricidal violence of the Iranian-backed "special groups," militias that killed Iraqi civilians and security forces in 2007-8, provoked a widespread backlash within Iraq against Iran.

Not only is the resistance bloc itself more fractured than is commonly understood, but its ability to exert influence in places that matter is debatable. This is particularly the case in Egypt, which has now become a strategic prize of sorts in the U.S.-Iranian regional competition (although its value as a real pillar in the United States' anti-Iranian strategy was always dubious, given the porousness of the Rafah border crossing, which was supposedly closed by Mubarak). Any new Egyptian government is likely to be less friendly to Israel and U.S. policies given the pressures of public opinion -- but that does not translate into automatic access or influence for Iran.

Egypt's new leaders will need to deliver domestically if they are to stay in power, and being coaxed into a regional war with Israel by Iran or its allies will be unappealing to every conceivable future Egyptian government, including one dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Simply put, Egypt cannot afford military conflict for the foreseeable future. The Egyptian military and intelligence communities, which are likely to hold the most influence of all political actors in the country for some time to come, will thus have a strong incentive to monitor and curb extremist activity supported by Iran on its soil.

And as Egypt reasserts its regional influence, which had been in decline for decades under Mubarak, it will offer yet another regional counterweight to Iranian attempts to manage the Middle Eastern agenda. Israel may not like the Egyptian-brokered Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal, but if that deal ultimately drives a wedge between Hamas and Iran (or between Hamas and Syria), Israel may find Egypt's new role less alarming.

Iran is also likely to meet resistance in areas closer to home, such as in Bahrain. Although the Bahraini government's crackdown and the measured U.S. response have given Iran a platform for moral grandstanding, its ability to influence the Shiite opposition in Bahrain is limited. True, some of the country's Shiite clerics look to Iran for spiritual guidance, and there is emotional affinity for Iran among ordinary Shiites in Bahrain. But it is Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, not Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has provided the inspiration and legitimizing support for Bahraini Shiite political strategies, such as the decision to participate in Bahrain's 2006 parliamentary elections.

Most Shiite leaders in Bahrain are careful to frame their activism in nationalist, nonsectarian terms, given their sensitivity to the regime's long-standing accusations of Iranian backing. At times, they themselves have been vocal critics of Iran's hegemonic aspirations; for example, in recent years, when figures close to the Iranian regime claimed Bahrain as Iran's rightful territory, some of the loudest protests came from Shiite parliamentarians. And despite its carefully prepared report to the UN in April, the Bahraini government has been unable to provide substantial evidence of Iranian or Hezbollah interference in the uprisings.

Finally, Iran's ability to reap benefits from the Arab uprisings is further limited by its own tumultuous domestic politics. Much of Iran's Nasserist foreign policy, at least at the rhetorical level, is embodied in the figure of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a noncleric whose working-class image and strident rhetoric has found receptive Arab audiences, particularly during the 2006 Lebanon war. But this has always been a negative form of populist influence, one that plays on frustrations rather than aspirations. With the possibility of more legitimate, populist rule in the Arab world, such resistance messages are likely to have only residual appeal going forward.

This is particularly so given the crackdowns in Iran and Ahmadinejad's spiraling fall from grace, partly as a result of the rift between him and the supreme leader. Even more, the Green Movement surprised many by reemerging as a force in Iran's streets in recent months, drawing inspiration from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Tehran may have managed to once again suppress the opposition, but the country continues to face conditions of unrest similar to those challenging the broader region: a youth bulge and rising unemployment. Although these domestic convulsions do not preclude Iran from pursuing a belligerent strategy of subversion beyond its borders -- and in fact may make it more likely as Iran's rulers look for diversions from domestic unrest -- they significantly erode Iran's ability to exert the soft power necessary to attract the support of the region's people or their new governments.


Perhaps the contest for predominance in a post-Arab Spring Middle East concerns whether the United States could end up losing more than Iran wins, and thus, Washington needs to be careful not to create opportunities for Iranian mischief.

In particular, U.S. policymakers should avoid a two-dimensional reading of the strategic map as a coherent bloc of Iranian-directed actors marching in lock step; such a view ignores the new dimension of Arab politics in which domestic environments matter more than ever. In such a climate, a strategy of relying solely on security relationships with the region's elites will lead the United States to miss out on important opportunities to develop broader relationships within Arab societies. Helping build economic opportunities and solidify political reforms may do as much to blunt Iranian influence and regional extremism -- not to mention improve the lives of people living there -- as would simplistic containment strategies based on military partnerships and artificial blocs.

As in the Cold War, a policy of containment must include more than just actions taken against one's adversary: it also must create an alternative model and make it viable. If the United States truly wants to counter the influence of Iran and other rejectionist forces in the Arab world, it would be far better served by supporting forces of moderation and more accountable governments in the region, rather than seeking out military alliances with out-of-touch leaders.

DALIA DASSA KAYE is Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. FREDERIC WEHREY is Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation.


Dalia Kaye and Frederic Wehrey reject the notion that countering the regional threat posed by Iran should be a central principle of U.S. foreign policy. They fail, however, to propose an alternative strategic concept. The closest they come is when they state, almost in passing, that "helping build economic opportunities and solidify political reforms" is the best way forward for Washington in the Middle East. Kaye and Wehrey present this agenda as if it contradicts my thesis, but it does not -- I fully agree with it.

The authors are arguing against a straw man. No one, myself included, believes that the resistance bloc led by Iran is "omnipotent," and no one argues that the best way to counter it is by "relying solely on security relationships with the region's elites." The danger from Iran is asymmetric: Tehran has developed a set of tools that, time and again, have proved their effectiveness against Washington by denying it local allies, increasing the economic cost of its operations, and killing its soldiers.

It is precisely this sly, semicovert nature that permits Kaye and Wehrey to plausibly claim that the resistance bloc is "more fractured than is commonly understood." They provide no evidence for this assessment. If significant fissures do truly exist, then the United States should hammer at them hard, cracking apart the bloc once and for all.

Yet ultimately, the belief in the weakness of these bonds is just that -- an article of faith, not a reasoned analysis. The Iranian-Syrian axis took shape in the early 1980s as an outgrowth of the Iran-Iraq War. Tehran and Damascus had a shared hostility toward Baghdad and toward the U.S.-led regional order more broadly. This enmity toward U.S. interests, especially, still holds true today: Iran and Syria have maintained the longest continuous regional alliance since the states of the Middle East gained their independence in the years after World War II. Hezbollah, for its part, is organically connected to Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Are there tensions among these actors? Undoubtedly, as there are in any relationship. But is there any serious reason to believe that the bloc can be split apart without regime change in either Iran or Syria? No.

Kaye and Wehrey exhibit what might be called the academic fallacy, in which the necessary simplicity of strategic concepts is mistaken for simple-mindedness (hence the diagnosis of "a two-dimensional reading of the strategic map"). The Middle East is inherently complex and presents policymakers in Washington with a multiplicity of actors that operate from a large variety of motives. It is important, however, not to let a fascination with complexity make one blind to enduring and consequential concentrations of power. The United States must train itself to see a large dune as something more formidable than just endless grains of sand.

By dismissing the cohesion of the resistance bloc, and by denying the severity of the threat that bloc poses, the hands-off approach of Kaye and Wehrey inevitably leads to the incoherence of current U.S. policy. Syria is an instructive case. The uprising there has created the most remarkable of circumstances: a problem in the Middle East in which the United States' strategic interests and its values are in perfect alignment. Even more, street protests and the state's brutal crackdown have given Washington potential leverage over a regime that has famously eluded all previous efforts at coercion.

Yet U.S. officials have given the Assad regime a pass. On April 7, three weeks into the uprising, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played therapist to Bashar al-Assad, the mixed-up adolescent. "What we have tried to do with him," she said, "is to give him an alternative vision of himself." On May 6, even after the regime had shown its most brutal face, Clinton restated her belief that Damascus has "an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda."

Among his many crimes, Assad aided the murder of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, is widely assumed to have been behind the killing of the Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri, and today is slaughtering civilians on his own streets with a cruelty unusual even by the standards of Arab autocracies. Of all the dictators in the region, why is it this murderer who receives the therapeutic approach?

The contrast with how Washington treated Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is striking. In February, President Barack Obama expressed a universal commitment to democratic values and on that basis demanded that Mubarak step down immediately. Thanks in part to the depth of U.S. influence in Egypt, Obama got his wish: Mubarak, a U.S. ally of 30 years, was given the bum's rush. By contrast, Assad, an enemy of long standing and a much more brutal dictator than Mubarak, is being treated with kid gloves.

Above all, the United States must distinguish clearly between friend and foe. When U.S. policymakers and experts see only complexity and avoid clear categorization, they end up treating the United States' allies as enemies and its enemies, including Iran, as allies.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now