Iran's leadership is consistently finding that its armed proxies in the region cannot buy the country genuine political influence.
Bahrain’s decision to normalise relations with Israel reinforces the pro-Israel pivot in the Gulf. Coming less than four weeks after a similar announcement by the United Arab Emirates, it appears that the taboo has been broken.
Arab states can now recognise Israel and establish diplomatic, as well as security and trade ties, in an effort to contain Iran.
While the plight and the future of Palestinians have traditionally served as a barrier to a normalisation of relations with Israel, the Iranian threat is seen as a more pressing concern.
Iran was already lambasting the UAE for betraying the Palestinian cause. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, did not contain his disdain: "The Emiratis will be disgraced forever.”
Tehran is certain to double-down on its condemnation of Arab leaders who pursue normalisation of relations with Israel; Tehran will use the occasion to repeat a tired proclamation that Iran is the only friend the Palestinians have left.
This rhetoric is consistent with the revolutionary zeal that distinguished Iran following the 1979 revolution – ramped up under the firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran might claim that history is on its side. But such rhetoric masks Iran’s growing isolation and weakness.
Iran expected the Arab streets to follow its lead in the wake of the 1979 revolution and topple their pro-US leaders. It worked hard to discredit Arab dynasties by depicting them as beholden to Washington and lacking the conviction to stand up to Israel.
Championing the Palestinian cause, the most emotive unifying concern across the Arab world has become a fixture of Iranian foreign policy. But these expectations soon faltered as regional leaders sprang into action to hit back at Iran at its weakest point.
Iran’s Shia identity has been its Achilles Heel. It differentiates Iran from most of its neighbours to the south, laying bare a sectarian schism that has come to ravage the region and tarnish Iran’s image in the Arab streets.
The Shia ascendancy in Iraq following the US toppling of Saddam Hussein led to a widely-held belief that Iraq is being lost to Iranian influence.
King Abdullah of Jordan captured this mood when he warned of an emerging united political Shia crescent. Yet, common Shia identity has not guaranteed Iranian influence. Iran has suffered credibility in Iraqi public opinion for its over-reach.
The 2019 attack on the Iranian Consulate in Karbala (a pilgrimage site for Iranians) by Shia protestors calling on Iran to stop interfering in Iraqi affairs was a vivid reminder that Iranian influence is fiercely contested, even by Shia actors.
Iranian influence in Iraq was also discussed by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kazim and US President Donald Trump during Kazimi's state visit to Washington in August 2020, further signalling that Baghdad would not allow its territory to be used by Iran as a staging ground for attacks in the region.
Syria presents yet another case for Iran’s regional influence. But even here, that influence cannot be taken for granted. It is true that Iran’s support for Bashar al Assad was critical in bolstering the defence against rebel groups. But it was the Russian airpower that allowed Assad forces to retake territory and contain rebel forces in northern pockets. This has made Russia the kingmaker with significant say on what happens next in Syria. Assad owes more to Russia than to Iran.
Iran is big on antagonising its neighbours while cultivating armed proxies. Undiplomatic statements by Iranian leaders in relation to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, have done significant damage to Iran’s regional standing. But this is not a sign of strength.
Iran’s efforts to cultivate proxies, supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia militias in Iraq are acts of desperation. They are designed to act as deterrence against potential US and Israeli attacks.
Armed proxies serve an important strategic role in the Iranian defence doctrine by making aggression against Iran too costly. Iranian leaders have repeatedly reminded the United States of their capacity to hit US interests in the region at times of crisis through their proxies.
Yet, Iranian friends are few and far in between. Tehran’s patronage of armed groups (often Shia) has seriously damaged its standing in the Arab streets.
Iran is not seen as a model to be emulated but as a source of sectarianism. That is why mass uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, dubbed the Arab Spring (2010-11), did not follow the Iranian model – much to the surprise of the Iranian leadership.
News on the normalisation of relations between Bahrain and Israel signifies new energy in containing Iran. Tehran is well and truly on the back foot.
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