A Tehran diplomatic blunder threatens to undermine its rising regional influence.
Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, Chairman of the Iranian military joint chiefs of staff since 1989, said on May 1:
Unfair and unIslamic (sic) moves will hurt the honor of Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and it will threaten the security of Saudi Arabia.
This is a hard statement to disagree with. Saudi Arabia’s blatantly sectarian move to suppress Shi’i Muslims in favor of Sunni Muslims certainly does seem to be both “unfair” and “un-Islamic.” The subsequent attacks on medical personnel are just one example of behavior that will “hurt the honor of Muslims in Saudi Arabia.” Whether Iran in any way threatens the security of Saudi Arabia as a result or not, others surely will. It seems impossible to imagine that Riyadh can escape negative consequences to its legitimacy and its stability.
One way or another, it seems almost certain that Washington, now standing almost silent on the sidelines, will see its valuable ally destabilized and its comfortable petroleum partnership with the Saudi kleptocracy impaired. Firouzabadi may be privately delighted to see the Saudis harm their own security while simultaneously empowering Iranian hard-liners or he may be genuinely outraged at the Saudi-Bahraini repression of Shi’i demanding justice…or both. But the bottom line is that Riyadh has undermined its long-term security, Iran looks good by comparison and has probably gained significant popularity in Iraq, and the chasm between the national security interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has just widened.
The Arab dictatorial regimes in the Persian Gulf are unable to contain the popular uprisings. The dictators should relinquish power, end their savage crimes and let the people determine their own future instead of ... opening an unworkable front against Iran.
Again, the general seems on solid analytical ground. Riyadh has seized the regional hardline position, while both Iran and Israel suddenly find themselves in the background, looking relatively peaceful. Iran in particular is finding its rhetoric confirmed, its international stance justified, its influence probably enhanced.
But the general went further, noting that “The Persian Gulf has always, is and shall always belong to Iran,” a remark that can be taken as a threat to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries that share its shoreline. If a cautious Iran can benefit from Riyadh’s clumsy counter-revolutionary campaign, the blatantly one-sided claim that Iran “owns” the international waterway seems a blunder that can only undermine its prestige. It cannot credibly both claim to be supporting justice in the Arab world and “ownership” of an international waterway that belongs as much not just to Saudi Arabia but also to Bahrain and its new friend Iraq as it does to Iran. Indeed, given the bitter half-century competition between Iran and Iraq over access to the Persian Gulf, the last thing an Iranian decision-maker hoping for influence in Iraq would want to do is claim that Iran “owns” the Gulf. How much one should read into this remark is unclear, but to make it in the midst of the Arab revolt at a minimum demonstrates poor judgment. One wonders how many Iraqis noticed this blunder and how much it might offset the rise in Iran’s image due to its defense of repressed Bahraini Shi’a.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1989, Firouzabadi called on Arab military commanders in February to defend their countries and “support popular movements.” He can feel somewhat satisfied that in Egypt and Tunisia they did; in Yemen, the military has split. But his remark about the Persian Gulf tarnishes his “democratic image.” He also warned Washington in 2010 against attacking Iran in no uncertain terms and lauded the anti-Zionist attitude of the Arab revolt in April.
The regional influence of Iran today is rising by itself; Iran’s adversaries are so busy dropping stones on their own feet that Iran looks better and better every minute that it does nothing. Insensitive remarks by senior military officials that effectively confirm imperialist intent on the part of Tehran risk alienating precisely the rising generation of young nationalist Arabs that Iran is currently applauding. His remark constitutes evidence that the normally cautious Iranian foreign policy may shift to a more risk-taking stance as Tehran’s star continues rising and its leaders begin to calculate that they no longer need be so patient.
Over the last decade, Iran saw a superpower adventure eradicate its main enemy and open the door to Iranian influence over Iraq, its main regional ally fight Israel to a draw without any overt Iranian intervention, the development of broad diplomatic and economic cooperation with rising regional power Turkey, and then a wave of popular revolts that destabilized all its Arab opponents and opened the door to renewed ties with an emergent Egypt. But Iran remains a weak country, imperiled by domestic dissent, economic mismanagement, and regional distrust. It would be ironic if Tehran’s good fortune from the hubris of others came to naught because all that good fortune led to hubris on the part of Iran.