The events which are happening in the Middle East recently are worth to be considered not only in the context of social and economic processes in each state, but as a geopolitical confrontation between different powers who are trying to increase their influence in the region.
Tough fight for the leadership in such an important region and in time of “big changes” resulted the regional states whether in a success or in a downfall. The same happened to the regional alliances; some alliances became very weak and some of them completely collapsed. “The Arab Spring” had brought a regime change, weakened (and in some cases dropped out of “a game”) those countries which played a serious role in the geopolitics of the region – it concerns Egypt, Syria and Libya.
It started in Iraq…
The beginning of a “new era” in the Middle East started with the initiatives of George Bush Jr. The grand plan of so called “democratization of Big Middle East” may be considered as a project of American hegemony in the region, aimed to create the interaction between USA, as a world’s superpower, and loyal regimes on the vast territory from Caspian sea to Indian ocean. It was essential for the White House to get rid of “vestiges” of the Cold war like Iraq, Libya, Syria and Islamic Iran.
The war in Iraq was one of the first blows to the previous structure of the Middle East, and it became a new era in its history. (The war in Afghanistan is to be considered as the very first stroke, even if it the state is far from the region, but it associates with the region in many aspects, for example it borders on Iran).
USA has never participated in such large-scale war interventions aiming to change regimes in that region. Bush Jr. wanted to repeat his father’s achievement who was before at the head of coalition to banish Saddam from Kuwait. But that war campaign (known as “Desert Storm”) had a limited character and didn’t result the Saddam regime overthrow. Bush- the Father saved Iraq as a buffer before Iran. The new stroke against Iraq and its disintegration resulted in “the black hole” creation, as per Brzezinski terminology.
However Iran succeeded in turning that destabilizing factor at its border for its benefit. It may seem strange, but USA practically has rendered the service to Iran by taking away a weakened but still threatening neighbor — Saddam. We shouldn’t forget that in Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) Iraq damaged Iran substantially and stopped the export of Islamic revolution. After American invasion Iraq ceased to be an independent geopolitical actor being disintegrated into several uncontrollable parts, and its Shiah population looked at Iran with hope. For some time a call to continue the war by attacking Iran could be heard in Washington. It was explained by the necessity to defeats the Tehran to finish with Iraqi war. But USA didn’t have enough power and audacity for such big developments, so Iran took the advantage and made a few confident steps to regional leadership while USA had stuck in Iraq.
Ups and downs of Iran
Many states in the Middle East intended to expand the sphere of their influence in the region by supporting different regional political and social organizations. After the victory of Islamic revolution Iran succeeded in this direction, staking on different political forces in the Arab world.
Thus, in 1979 the Iranians assisted the creation of local Shiah organization “the Hezbollah” in Lebanon. After the Lebanon war in 2006 this organization became the symbol of resistance to Israel and thanks to this gained the love of majority of Arab people. The author of this article visited the Middle East immediately after Israel aggression in 2006 and witnessed the scope of Shiah Islamic organization popularity which was little-known outside Lebanon in the past.
Iran began to play on the Palestinian ground supporting Hamas in Gaza. The victory of the movement in 2006 may be considered as an obvious success of Tehran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who criticized Israel from all tribunes, became one of the most popular politicians in Arab streets. Thus the export of Iranian Islamic revolution was stopped by Saddam in 80th after two decades the influence of Tehran was so high that it seemed that there were no more obstacles. Iran withstood the pressure from Europe and USA by making the relationship with the other geopolitical players and by developing their own technologies and resources.
Meanwhile kingdoms in Persian Gulf started to buy the weapons from USA and Europe with feverish haste being frightened of Iran and movements of Shiah minorities. On at the other end of the world Western analysts and experts in the Middle East discussed the possibility of a new war against Iran and tried to guess the date of joint American-Israel operation. But geopolitical reconfiguration of the Middle East made a start in absolutely different place – in Tunis streets where the young vendor Mohamed Bouazizi committed quite a strange for Muslim world act of self-immolation and later an Arab street had “caught a fire”.
The “Arab spring” put Iran in a strange situation. On the one hand pro-Western and anti-Iranian regimes collapsed (or those regimes having cold attitude towards Iran); on the other hand — this phenomenon could bring “a fire” to Iran itself and the change of regimes in the other Arab countries (first of all in Syria) promised the serious changes in power balance in the region, destroying everything Iran had thoroughly developed. And if the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya didn’t directly influence Tehran, the Syrian conflict became turning point. Iran couldn’t accept the loss of Syria and support of Bashar Assad made Iran nearly the main opponent of “Arab awakening”.
It’s amazing that Arabs forgot quickly how they praised the victory of Hezbollah movement in Lebanon-Israel war in 2006. And the high rating of Iran and president Ahmadinejad, who was considered as the main opponent of Israel, had fallen down in the opinion of the “Arab street” where the new revolutionary trend prevailed. Giving support to Assad Iran and Hezbollah became “hateful reactionary force” for those who recently admired them.
The strategic axis Iran-Syria-Hezbollah found itself under the threat due to the threat of Assad regime downfall. Moreover Shiah riots in Bahrain were suppressed. In addition Iran isn’t considered as the main defender of the Palestinians – disorders in Syria caused the fight between HAMAS and Iran. Part of HAMAS leaders residing in Damask for a long time joined the opposition part after some hesitations and internal disputes. And Iran stopped financing that part of Palestinians and those hurried up to welcome a new main sponsor – Qatar. Qatar emir’s sensational visit of Gaza in October 2012 has symbolically consolidated the turn of the part of HAMAS under Qatar guardianship.
The relationship between Iran and Turkey are also tense. Turkish authorities prefer to support the regime change in Syria rather than the alliance with Iran…
St.-Petersburg State University, Department of Political Science,
St.-Petersburg Center for Studies of Contemporary Middle East