The recent protests in Iran have added some cracks to the otherwise stable foundation of the Iranian Islamist regime. While the government is still overwhelmingly strong, the democracy movement has the ability to drastically change the political dynamics in the Middle East. Although far from a sure bet, the new Iranian revolution may very well be the second step in a modern day, Middle Eastern ‘domino theory’- preceded by the War in Iraq.
One of the more vocal criticisms of regime change in Iraq was that it unbalanced the region. Iraq kept Iran in line. By removing the Iraqi threat Iran was unleashed. However, as Robert Kaplan points out in a recent Washington Post editorial, this may have been part of the plan. (See here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/23/AR2009062303114.html?wpisrc=newsletter.) In the short-run, a rise in Iranian power is less than desirous; however, it may inevitably let loose a path to real change in the Middle East.
Because of the removal of the Iraqi threat, Iran made a grab for greater regional and international power. The regime was better able to flex its muscle and meddle in regional and foreign affairs without having to be preoccupied with its Western border. This led Iran to directly challenge America and Europe.
Iran’s power move, while seemingly bad for America, had two main effects. First, it caused rebalancing amongst the Arab states. The ‘moderate’ Sunni Arab states of Egypt and Saudi Arabia were now faced with a more imminent danger from Iran. Today, these two states now face numerous new threats to their rule, both domestically and regionally, from an unencumbered Iran. With one foe out of the picture, Iran can increase its focus on these remaining two contenders for regional hegemony. With an increase in Iranian-sponsored terrorism and a direct threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb, it is only natural that the various Sunni Arab states would need to join forces against the upstart Iran. This is beneficial because it pushes these countries closer to the United States, and enables greater strength and flexibility in the region.
Second, Iran’s excessive aggression promoted a pro-democracy movement. The Iranian revolution was born of disgust with the ruling clerics. Amongst the chief complaints, was Ahmadinejad’s bellicose language and antagonism of the West. While certainly not the only cause for revolution, the Iranian leadership’s aggression was a spark that helped incite the powder keg. The moderate reformers were unwilling to see an extremist such as Ahmadinejad lead their country into direct conflict with the U.S. It is unlikely that Ahmadinejad would have been as aggressive, and therefore as repulsive to his people, had Saddam Hussein still been in power.
One possible, fortunate outcome would be a spread of pro-democracy movements throughout the Middle East. As the Arab Street watches the tumult in Iran, it is natural to question the leadership of the remaining Arab despots. While no large movements have started yet, there is considerable talk in the Middle East about the need for reform. Kindred spirits in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are realizing that they can fight for greater rights and freedoms and throw off the yokes of their respective regimes. Lebanon, for instance, has already rejected the Islamist movement of Hezbollah and turned towards the West.
To what extent the Iranian revolution spreads throughout the Middle East is still very much up in the air. The extent of the Iranian reformists’ success is, of course, a huge factor. The repressive measures of the Arab regimes will also play a role. Likewise, reform could come in many shapes- from wholesale regime change to more gradual, internal policy changes. However, this is a profound opportunity for real change in the region- change that has the chance of drastically altering global politics.