In recent years, Israeli strategists have identified an Iran-led regional alliance as representing the main strategic challenge to the Jewish state. This alliance looks to be emerging as one of the net losers of the Arab upheavals of 2011. This, however, should be cause for neither satisfaction nor complacency for Israel. The forces moving in to replace or compete with Iran and its allies are largely no less hostile.
The Iran-led regional alliance, sometimes called the muqawama (“resistance”) bloc, consisted of a coalition of states and movements led by Tehran and committed to altering the US-led dispensation that pertained since the end of the cold war.
It included, in addition to Iran itself, the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, the Sadrist movement and other Shia Islamist currents in Iraq, Syria’s Assad regime, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation. It appeared in recent years also to be absorbing Hamas.
The muqawama bloc presented itself as the representative of authentic Islamic currents in the Middle East, and as locked in combat until the end with the west and its clients. These included Saudi Arabia, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, and above all, Israel.
However, the alliance always had a rather obvious flaw: while presenting itself as an inclusive, representative camp, it was an almost exclusively Shia Muslim club, in a largely Sunni Muslim Middle East.
The Iranians evidently hoped that militancy against the west, above all on behalf of the Palestinians, could counteract the league-of-outsiders aspect of their alliance.
For a while, this project appeared to be working. The Iran-created and sponsored Hezbollah movement managed to precipitate Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, and then avoided defeat in a subsequent round of fighting in 2006. In a poll of Arab public opinion taken in 2008, the three most popular leaders were Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, in that order.
But this sense of inexorable ascendancy in which the Iran-led bloc liked to cloak itself has fallen victim to the Arab spring. First, the Saudis crushed a largely Shia uprising in Bahrain which the Iranians backed. But more importantly, Iran’s tooth and nail defence of the brutal Assad regime in Syria is progressively destroying its already shallow support Sunni Muslims.
Thus, a recent poll by the Arab-American Institute asked more than 4,000 Arabs their view of Iran. In Saudi Arabia, 6% had a positive view – down from 89% in 2006. In Jordan, the positive rating fell from 75% to 23%, in Egypt from 89% to 37% in the same period.
The uprising in Syria placed Iran in an impossible position. Maintaining its ally in Damascus formed an essential strategic interest. Iran hoped, following the US departure from Iraq, to achieve a contiguous line of pro-Iranian, Shia states stretching from Iran itself to the Mediterranean. But keeping this ambition alive in recent months required offering very visible support to a non-Sunni regime engaged in the energetic slaughter of its own, largely Sunni people. This has led to the drastic decline in the standing of the Iranians and their friends.
Such a decline was probably inevitable. Outside the core areas of Shia Arab population, Iran’s support was broad but shallow. It is noteworthy that since the Arab Spring, Hamas appears to have distanced itself both from Assad and from the Iranians. According to some reports, this has led to Iranian anger and a cessation of the flow of funds to the Hamas enclave in Gaza.
These setbacks do not mean the end of Iran and its allies as a regional power bloc. Assad has not yet fallen. The Iranian nuclear programme is proceeding apace. Tehran’s Hezbollah client is in effective control of Lebanon. But it does mean that in future the Iranian appeal is likely to be more decisively limited to areas of Shia population.
The less good news, from Israel’s point of view, is that the new forces on the rise in the region consist largely of one or another variant of Sunni Islamism. AKP-led Turkey has emerged as a key facilitator of the Syrian opposition, in which Sunni Islamist elements play a prominent role. Turkey appears to be in the process of making a bid for the regional leadership also sought by Iran.
In Egypt, too, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces look set to reap an electoral dividend in November. The Sinai area has already become a zone of activity for Islamist terror directed against Israel, because of the breakdown in law and order in recent months. The attacks on the pipeline bringing Egyptian gas to Israel, and the recent terror attack in Eilat, are testimony to this.
So while the “Shia crescent” may have suffered a strategic setback as a result of the upheavals in the Arab world, the space left by the fall of regional leaders looks to be filled largely by new, Sunni Islamist forces.
Israel remains capable of defending itself against a strategic threat posed by any constellation of these elements. But the current flux in the region is likely to produce a more volatile, complex Middle East, consisting of an Iran-led camp and perhaps a number of Sunni competitors, rather than the two-bloc contest of pro-US and pro-Iranian elements which preceded 2011.