Tehran has done an impressive job of managing its national security challenges over the last 20 years. Can it now put the icing on its national security cake by teaming up with Arab moderates, especially the new Egypt, and isolating Saudi Arabia in embarrassed league with Israel?
One of the major questions regarding the long-term state of Mideast affairs is how Tehran will react to the simultaneous Arab democratization wave and sectarian Saudi challenge. By itself, a democratizing wave would not seem likely to attract very serious Iranian support nor offer Tehran’s hard-line leadership much opportunity, since it contradicts the militant foreign policy and domestic repression dominant in Iran. However, the Saudi counterrevolution makes Riyadh the leader of the region’s anti-democratic forces, and the brutal, obviously sectarian approach of Riyadh offers Tehran an opportunity to enhance its regional image, enhance its national security at low cost simply by supporting the newly emerging moderate Arab regimes. These regimes, to a discerning and patient Tehranian eye, could be seen as legitimate partners over a fairly long period on the simple basis of their desire for foreign policy independence. The more Tel Aviv and Riyadh team up to undermine Arab liberty, the easier it will be for Tehran to strike a tactical deal with any neutral, democratic Arab regimes that may emerge.
Whether such a deal actually transforms Iran into just another Turkey or in the end proves little more than a cloaking device for hard-line Iranian nationalism devoted to establishing a new world order is a question that will only be answered years from now, and will depend greatly on how things work out in the meantime: the answer is not preordained. Tehran kept its cool in the face of the flood of the U.S. military into its backyard and smoothly emerged the victor in the 20-year-long war between Washington and Saddam, while simultaneously maintaining its independence and avoiding Israeli attack. Now, Tehran has an opportunity to improve on this impressive record by “joining” an emerging Arab moderate center and thus isolating Israel and Saudi Arabia far off in right field. In five years, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and perhaps a couple other regional states could be comfortably tied by a booming hydrocarbon network of priceless strategic value to Western Europe and thus also of priceless strategic value to Iran. As the source of most of the gas, Iran could become, in European eyes, “too big to fail,” and thus protected from Israeli attack.
The big payoff for Washington would be if Tehran decided that the energy superpower game was more attractive than the game of leading the campaign to overthrow the U.S.-centric global political system.
The first move is up to Tehran, and so far, it is choosing the road of moderation and cooperation. Tehran has responded only with words to Riyadh’s brutal repression of Bahraini Shi’a, but simultaneously Tehran is moving steadily to shift regional strategic relations by pulling Egypt away from the Saudis. By ineptly interfering with the democratization process in Egpyt, the Saudis are only facilitating Iran’s way forward. Trading Egypt for Bahrain can hardly be a wise strategic move for Saudi Arabia.
The next move is up to Cairo and seems likely to come in Gaza. An Egyptian move to bring any significant measure of justice to the people of Gaza would simultaneous cause a fundamental rift with Riyadh and pave the road to normalization with Tehran.