If pro-democracy activists in the Middle East have someone to thank for showing them how to challenge their oppressors, they should look to Iran. Young Iranians, who took to the streets after a stolen election in 2009, showed their neighbors how to launch a peaceful democratic uprising. Unfortunately, the regime that smashed the Iranian quest for democracy also had a lesson to teach its neighbors. The Islamic Republic’s brutality against its own people is now being replicated in much of the Arab world.
While the people of Iran have not given up hope that they will ultimately succeed in toppling a repressive regime dominated by the Republican Guard and the Shiite clerical establishment, the reality so far is quite the opposite. On balance, the seizures of instability convulsing Arab countries have strengthened the Iranian regime. So far, Iran is winning.
Instability in the heart of the oil-producing region has sent oil prices soaring, bringing money gushing into Tehran’s coffers. The extra cash goes a long way toward neutralizing the effects of international sanctions aimed at forcing Iran to stop its nuclear program. While the world is distracted, preoccupied with the unfolding uprisings, figuring out NATO’s role in the fight for Libya, Iran has redoubled activities in its banned nuclear program. A few days ago, Iran confirmed work on a new generation of centrifuges to enrich uranium, the key ingredient in nuclear weapons. A new nuclear reactor is slated to start up next month. Despite setbacks from the Stuxnet computer virus, scientists in many countries believe Tehran is back on track to develop all the elements needed for “breakout” capability, the power to quickly build a nuclear weapon the moment it decides to do it.
The West seems to have forgotten about Iran, at precisely the time when Tehran is in a position to become even more of a threat.
In the meantime, the anti-Iran coalition woven together by Washington and its allies is fraying. The now-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was one of the key anti-Iran bulwarks in the Middle East. Stopping Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and its growing influence in the region is not a priority in the New Egypt.
Unrest in Bahrain, where Shiites are rising up against a Sunni-dominated government, and that government’s bloody response, also strengthen Iran’s regional standing. The turmoil makes it much easier for Iran to spread its anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israel ideology to places like Bahrain and Yemen and gradually the entire region. Iranian-backed parties had already overtaken much of the political system in Lebanon and gained control by force in Gaza even before the current turmoil started. Iran remains a threat even without nuclear weapons. Watching the Libyan experience, it will now work more relentlessly to acquire them. Once it acquires nuclear arms, this state that already funds, trains and arms terrorists will become an unthinkable threat.
At least for now, Iran has emerged stronger from the regional turmoil. Washington, meanwhile, has lost ground. The Obama administration’s demand for Mubarak to step down angered the Saudis, who now say privately they cannot count on America. The Saudis, nevertheless, still despise and mistrust Iran. Most of America’s friends in the Arab world are now either out of power or under siege. Any weakening of America brings a corresponding strengthening of the Iranian regime.
It’s not all good news for Tehran. The brutal crackdown in Syria — which has received shamefully scant attention by the media, the White House and, for that matter, the entire Western world — constitutes a real threat to Iran.
Bashar al-Assad has killed hundreds of peaceful protesters. Reports say elements of the vast security apparatus are shooting soldiers who refuse to shoot protesters. Iran itself, meanwhile, continues to intensify its own crackdown on the opposition to avoid a new flare up of anti-regime protests.
If Syria’s Assad were to fall, Iran would lose its most important ally. With Assad, Iran-backed Hezbollah would lose a key lifeline to help it continue dominating the Lebanese landscape. Without Assad, Hamas in Gaza also would lose a key backer. Assad’s Damascus is home to a number of wanted men, including Hamas’ top leader in exile, Khaled Meshal.
The Obama administration’s goal of deterring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons seems to have slipped from the priority list. The regime seems stronger than ever. And yet, its vulnerability has become more exposed. Rather than war, the answer to the Iranian threat is a successful democratic uprising. Let’s hope the Obama administration and its allies are quietly doing all they can to help Iran’s beleaguered democrats. Let’s hope this lack of attention to Iran is just an optical illusion.
• Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald.