Much of the ruling establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran welcomed the Arab Spring when it broke out in Tunisia and Egypt. After all, events in those two countries removed two secular and pro-American Arab regimes that had been on hostile terms with Iran. This was especially true of Egypt’s Mubarak government, which had also created problems for Hamas in Gaza, which Iran was trying to help in its fight against Israel. Indeed, some Iranian statesmen even went as far as claiming that the Arab Spring was a result of the liberating impact of the 1979 revolution in Iran.
The coming to power of Islamist groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt and Tunisia was also welcomed by Iranian leaders, albeit more guardedly because of the Brotherhood’s close historical association with groups that called themselves Salafi. The Syrian civil war changed everything, as regional countries lined up on opposite sides of the conflict. It was at this juncture that the newly elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Mursi, called himself a Salafist and then began to support the opposition to the Syrian government in alliance with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others.
However, Mursi’s support of the Syrian opposition and of Turkish efforts to aid that opposition was perhaps more symbolic than real. With many internal problems of its own, and without a common border with Syria and possessing no real financial means to help the opposition, Egypt took a back seat and allowed Saudi and Qatari money and Turkish logistical aid do what could be done for the Syrian opposition.
As far as Iran was concerned, the defense of the Syrian state became a major foreign policy issue. Naming Syria the “front line state of the axis of resistance” against Israel and the West, Iran began to pour in aid in support of the Syrian government’s war effort. While Iran’s 1979 revolution may have had little to do with the Arab Spring, it has produced a sense of empowerment and pride among the Shi’a population worldwide. The result has been the establishment of a “Shi’a crescent” from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran. Iran is the leading member of this crescent, as well as the most stable. The defense of the Shi’a crescent is a major concern of the Islamic Republic, explaining the effort put into defending the Syrian state. In this context, Egypt was not a major factor in the Syrian conflict to begin with, and its removal from the scene cannot have a significant impact on the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Syria.
Iran’s relations with Turkey began to suffer as a result of the Syrian civil war, and any hope of improving relations with Egypt was dashed. Egypt’s support for the Syrian opposition and for Turkish policy, symbolic as it was, had some weight, since it came from the strongest Arab country. The removal of Mursi in a military coup d’état once again changed the equation. The new rulers of Egypt seem to be even more involved in managing the country’s internal challenges and less inclined to seek adventure outside Egypt’s borders. The new situation has translated into the withdrawal of support for the Turkish policy on Syria and distancing Egypt from that civil war. Egypt, it seems, is fast going back to the pre-Arab Spring status quo.
Is the new situation a victory for Iran? The answer seems to be “yes,” in a very small way, and “no” in a more general sense. Iran just had an election, which filled the office of president with a pragmatic administration with the goal of improving the Iranian people’s economic life in part by reducing the country’s foreign policy tensions. This includes the nuclear issue and Syria. Iran is deeply involved in trying to prevent the Syrian regime’s collapse and, as such, has diverted many resources to that end. Involvement in the costly Syrian civil war does not fit well with the new government’s pragmatic approach and attempt at lessening tensions.
The Syrian use of chemical weapons has also helped increase policy differences at the highest levels of power in Iran. The difference seems to be between those who argue the Syrian regime is not worth saving verses those who argue for continued support for that regime. In this context, Egypt’s rift with Turkey and other related issues seem to have removed a symbolic support for the Syrian opposition, but that alone will not make much of a difference on the battlefield. At best, it has secondary implications for Iran’s interests in the region: it cannot be considered a significant victory for the Islamic Republic.
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.