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As Arab world shakes, Iran’s influence grows

February 24, 2011

Michael Slackman

New York Times

MANAMA, Bahrain — The popular revolts shaking the Arab world have begun to shift the balance of power in the region, bolstering Iran’s position while weakening and unnerving its rival, Saudi Arabia, regional experts said.

While it is far too soon to write the final chapter on the uprisings’ impact, Iran already has benefited from the ouster or undermining of Arab leaders who were its strong adversaries and has begun to project its growing influence, the analysts said. This week Iran sent two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time since its revolution in 1979, and Egypt’s new military leaders allowed them to pass.

Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally and a Sunni nation that jousts with Shiite Iran for regional influence, has been shaken. King Abdullah on Wednesday signaled his concern by announcing a $10 billion increase in welfare spending to help young people marry, buy homes and open businesses, a gesture seen as trying to head off the kind of unrest that fueled protests around the region.

Abdullah then met with the king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, to discuss ways to contain the political uprising by the Shiite majority there. The Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain accuse their Shiite populations of loyalty to Iran, a charge rejected by Shiites who say it is intended to stoke sectarian tensions and justify opposition to democracy.

The uprisings are driven by domestic concerns. But they have already shredded a regional paradigm in which a trio of states aligned with the West supported engaging Israel and containing Israel’s enemies, including Hamas and Hezbollah, experts said. The pro-engagement camp of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is now in tatters. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been forced to resign, King Abdullah of Jordan is struggling to control discontent in his kingdom and Saudi Arabia has been left alone to face a rising challenge to its regional role.

“I think the Saudis are worried that they’re encircled — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon; Yemen is unstable; Bahrain is very uncertain,” said Ali Reza Nader, an expert in international affairs with the Rand Corp. “They worry that the region is ripe for Iranian exploitation. Iran has shown that it is very capable of taking advantage of regional instability.”

“Iran is the big winner here,” said a regional adviser to the U.S. government who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Iran’s circumstances could change, experts cautioned, if it overplayed its hand or if popular Arab movements came to resent Iranian interference in the region. It is by no means assured that pro-Iranian groups would dominate politics in Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere.

For now, Iran and Syria are emboldened. Qatar and Oman are tilting toward Iran, and Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen are in play.

“If these ‘pro-American’ Arab political orders currently being challenged by significant protest movements become at all more representative of their populations, they will for sure become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States,” Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, former National Security Council staff members, wrote in an email.

They added that at the moment, Iran’s leaders saw that “the regional balance is shifting, in potentially decisive ways, against their American adversary and in favor of the Islamic Republic.” Iran’s standing is stronger in spite of its challenges at home, with a troubled economy, high unemployment and a determined political opposition.

  1. March 13, 2011 at 12:07 am

    The pictures of Bahraini women supporting the revolution on:
    http://hozourblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/bahraini-women-and-the-islamic-awakening-movement/

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