Iran Crisis Ripples Outward

As the political crisis that erupted after Iran’s Jun. 12 elections enters its third week, it is becoming evident that this crisis will have repercussions in many parts of the Middle East — and far beyond.

The crisis may have its biggest effects inside neighboring Iraq, where next Tuesday, Jun. 30, the U.S. occupation forces are due to complete their redeployment out of all the country’s cities.

It will also likely also have strong effects on the course of Israeli-Arab peace negotiations, inside Afghanistan, and of course on the prospect for any imminent war between Iran and the U.S. or Israel.

In all these policy areas, analysts warn it is still very hard to predict the precise way the current crisis in Tehran will reverberate.

In Iran, the most visible part of the current dispute involves President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claims he won a strong victory in the Jun. 12 election, and runner-up Mir Hossein Mousavi, who strongly challenges that verdict. But most Iran-watchers judge that the real battle is between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has more power than the president, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who chairs the country’s powerful Assembly of Experts.

Khamenei and Rafsanjani were both significant figures in the Islamic Revolution that took power in Iran in 1979. Today, each of them heads politically powerful networks in the country’s state, clerical, and economic hierarchies.

The dispute between these men is a clash of the titans, being fought at the very heart of Iran’s ruling institutions. Most analysts of Iranian affairs predict it will not be resolved any time soon.

Gary Sick, who has followed Iranian affairs closely since the 1970s, has warned that, "This is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Endurance is at least as important as speed."

While this dispute is being argued over — in the seminaries of the holy city of Qom and the war-rooms of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as in the streets of some Iranian cities — the situations in neighboring regions continue to evolve. They will be doing so in ways that are strongly affected by what has been happening in Iran.

In Iraq, as the deadline for the partial U.S. withdrawal has approached, the country has seen a serious uptick in violence, much of it against civilians. Many people inside and outside Iraq have questioned whether the Baghdad government is able to protect its people.

Iraq and Iran share a long common border, and though the Iraqi government was installed by the U.S., most of its members have been much closer to Iran than to the U.S. Most of the anti-government violence in Iraq is thought to have been carried out by Sunni militants, some of whom may well have some backing from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

The political paralysis in Tehran will almost certainly hobble the Iranian regime’s ability to deal effectively with the challenges that it and its allies face in Iraq. And this, in turn, will affect the broader balance of power in the strategically significant Gulf region, given that Iran and Iraq have traditionally been by far the weightiest powers there.

Saudi Arabia is a geographically large, oil-rich Gulf country that for 70 years has compensated for its numerous vulnerabilities by maintaining close links with the United States. Its leaders and most of its people are Sunni Arabs. Most of Iran’s people are Persians, not Arabs. Most Iranians — and certainly those in power — are strong adherents of the Shi’ite form of Islam.

Before Jun. 12, Saudi Arabia’s rulers were worried that the U.S. military’s phased withdrawal from Iraq would allow Iran to expand its influence there, and in the whole Gulf region, quite significantly.

A majority of the citizens of Iraq are Shi’ites, though they are ethnically Arab. Many of the citizens of the other Arab gulf countries are also Shi’ites, though their rulers are all strong adherents of Sunnism. Hence the tacit support many of these rulers have given to the anti-Shi’ite insurgents in Iraq.

Since Jun. 12, there have been several indications that the Saudi rulers and the Gulf area’s other conservative and pro-U.S. Arab monarchs have been breathing a lot more easily. But several Gulf experts warn that despite the present depth of Iran’s political crisis, Iran remains a significant power in, and far beyond, the Gulf.

Another area in which Tehran’s political crisis has already been having some effects is the Israeli-Arab arena. For many years now, Tehran has had strong alliances with Syria, the Lebanese party Hezbollah, and the Palestinian movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

At least two of those allies, Syria and Hamas, have long sought to balance their relationship with Tehran by also building ties with western nations.

So long as George W. Bush was U.S. president he strongly rebuffed all those overtures. Indeed, he worked energetically, alongside Israel, to try to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah and, more covertly, to overthrow the current Syrian regime.

In the months since President Obama’s January inauguration, Washington’s stance toward those Arab actors — especially Syria- had already changed a little. On May 31, Secretary of State Clinton held a breakthrough telephone conversation with the Syrian foreign minister and a few days later presidential peace envoy George Mitchell visited Damascus for talks with President Bashar al-Assad.

On Wednesday, the State Department announced it would be sending a new ambassador to Damascus soon. Washington has not had an ambassador there since 2005, so the announcement was seen as signaling a significant thaw in relations.

One influential U.S. journalist, David Ignatius, linked that move explicitly to a judgment by the Obama administration that with Tehran suddenly seeming weaker than before, now was the time to "peel away" its allies.

Other long-term observers of regional dynamics challenge that explanation, saying Washington had been planning the move for some time, anyway. But regardless of which explanation is correct, it seems clear that with the Iranian regime busy sorting out its own internal problems, now is a good time for Washington to push forward its peace efforts between Israel its Arab neighbors with new vigor.

The prospects for success in this peacemaking also currently look good given that recent opinion polls show that Pres. Obama has strong and continuing support from the U.S. public, and reveal unprecedentedly low figures of support for the Israeli prime minister.

This political situation at home allows Obama and Mitchell to pursue their peace diplomacy in a way that is more even-handed toward both Arabs and Israelis, and therefore holds more hopes of real success, than that pursued by any U.S. president since George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s.

From this perspective, the fact that politicians in Washington and Tel Aviv are not currently having to look over their shoulders and worry about "Iran’s growing influence" or "rewarding Iran’s allies", as they previously were, could help the peacemaking to proceed more smoothly.

Iran is also an important actor in another area of intense U.S. concern: Afghanistan, with which it shares a border and many interests.

Tehran and Washington have been acting for many years in a tacit alliance in Afghanistan, since both have been strongly committed to battling al Qaeda and its local allies there.

Obama has long signaled the depth of his commitment to the war in Afghanistan by deploying many additional U.S. troops into the fighting there. The fact that he needs Iran’s cooperation in that war — just as he needs a good degree of Iranian cooperation if the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq is to proceed successfully — considerably limits the degree to which he can pursue a strongly anti-Tehran policy, however much he might want to.

On Tuesday, he stepped up his criticism of the actions Supreme Leader Khamenei’s faction in Iran has taken against supporters of Mousavi and Rafsanjani, when he said he was "appalled by" and "condemned" the violence the Iranian security forces have used.

But he stopped far short of caving to the demands made by right wing critics that he throw his weight wholly behind the Mousavi faction.

But at the international level, one notable acknowledgement of the country’s weight in world affairs has come from the fact that many governments around the world have already congratulated President Ahmadinejad on his victory. These include Iraq, Turkey, and most of Iran’s other immediate neighbors, along with China and Russia.

Iran’s weight in regional and world affairs has been dented but by no means ended by the crisis in Tehran. The developments that unfold there will have a continuing effect on the situations in the Middle East, Central Asia, and far beyond.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at