Iran’s power in the Middle East has always been as a spoiler. The Arab Spring could have been an opportunity to build, but Tehran has instead lost influence.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo on 5 February 2013 was, potentially, an historic event. Iran and Egypt have had decidedly difficult relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, mirroring the suspicion with which the Iranian regime has been treated across the region. The advent of an Islamic government in Egypt provided an opportunity to improve the situation. But the visit was a bust. Indeed, relations have, if anything, worsened since the outbreak of fighting in Syria, which has pitted Iran against much of the Arab world once again.

In many ways, the visit is an emblem for the impact of the Arab Spring on Iran’s standing across the Middle East. Initially, Iran greeted the uprisings with increasing optimism. Though as much of a surprise in Tehran as anywhere else, they appeared to fulfil long-held dreams of the Islamic Republic; anti-Iranian regimes were toppled across the region, Islamic political parties promised to do well in many important countries and US influence in the Middle East seemed to diminish. But then a strange thing happened: the region did not move in Tehran’s favour. In fact, the trend seems to be going in the opposite direction. Over the course of the Arab Spring to date, we have witnessed emotions in Iran change from initial optimism, to growing concern, to outright worry. It now appears that Iran is a net loser from the Arab Spring, and this trend is likely to intensify. There are three reasons for this.

Firstly, Tehran’s ability to claim that it provides a model for the region’s emerging Arab regimes has been dramatically reduced. While Tehran has attempted to champion the cause of ‘resistance’ and democracy across the region, the hypocrisy of doing so everywhere but at home and in Syria is increasingly obvious. Iran’s social and political influence has been seriously weakened and this may be a greater loss for Iran than many in the West realise.

Secondly, while political Islam is making gains across the region, for now at least, Islamic parties are not looking to Tehran for leadership and inspiration. Initial hopes that the new regime in Egypt might be willing to move beyond the animosities of the Mubarak era and begin a new phase of relations with Iran have been dashed. This has happened partly due to Iran’s response to the Syrian uprising, and partly because the kind of political Islam that is emerging in many Arab countries could turn out to be quite different to what is practised in the Islamic Republic. It seems, thus far anyway, that political Islam in the Arab world is emerging in a way which will maintain, and perhaps even accentuate, both Arab nationalism and confessional politics; the old Persian-Arab and Sunni-Shia animosities are not going away.

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Peter Jones is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2013

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