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Is Iran Still Center Of Middle East's 'Great Game'?

  • Robert Tait

An Iranian student holds up a sign with a picture of a Bahraini protester in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. Iran has been vocal in its criticism of Saudi actions against Shi'ite protesters in the Persian Gulf state.

An Iranian student holds up a sign with a picture of a Bahraini protester in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. Iran has been vocal in its criticism of Saudi actions against Shi'ite protesters in the Persian Gulf state.

From being the most assertively visible actor in the Middle East, it has seemingly become quiet and unnoticed, almost the forgotten country. Yet three months into what has become known as the "Arab awakening," non-Arabic-speaking Iran remains the giant elephant in the living room for foreign-policy makers in Washington.

Indeed, some view current developments as little more than a temporary lull in the long-running contest for influence between the United States and the Islamic regime, an interpretation that appears to be shared by senior officials in Tehran.

"The New York Times" crystallized the trend by reporting on April 2 that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama regarded events in Libya, where Western powers have sided with rebels trying to unseat Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, as a "sideshow" and that it "sees the region through a Persian lens."

Under the headline, "The Larger Game In The Middle East: Iran," the paper wrote, "Containing Iran's power remains their [administration officials'] central goal in the Middle East. Every decision -- from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria -- is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration's regional strategy."

Trita Parsi, head of the Washington-based National American Iranian Council, says the preoccupation is evident in conversations with U.S. officials as well as in administration decisions, including its hesitation over whether to back the mass protests that ultimately ousted the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

"In my own conversations with administration officials in regard to what is happening in the region, it's been very clear that the frame through which they are looking at these things consistently is: 'How does this affect the competition between the United States and Iran?'" Parsi says. "When looking at what was happening in Egypt, the real question was not what was best for the Egyptian people or democracy. It was: how will this affect the geopolitical rivalry between Iran and the United States? Will any of the decisions the U.S. make[s], or any of the developments, undermine Iran's position in the region?"

Pushing The Old Order Out

Fueling that tendency is the widespread feeling that the upheavals are working in Iran's favor. Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says the revolts play to the Islamic regime's inclination to sow and exploit discord.

"I think Iran is the beneficiary of almost everything that is happening in the region, including what has happened in Bahrain," Maloney says. "The one exception is the recent upheaval in Syria. But everything else has really put many of Iran's old adversaries on the defensive and has obviously forced Washington to scramble and revisit some policies and deal with new elites and leaders."

She describes this as a "real positive" for Iran, because the Islamic republic "has a natural predisposition toward uncertainty and turmoil. They don't need a wholly sympathetic or identical system of government as the Iranians themselves [have developed]. They simply need to see some of their old adversaries pushed out of power and they need to have opportunities to cultivate new allies."

The turbulence in Bahrain -- where Saudi troops were recently deployed to help the U.S.-backed Sunni monarchy suppress an uprising among the Shi'ite majority -- seems to capture the Iranian specter in microcosm.

Events there have been heavily covered by Iran's state-controlled media, which has sided with their fellow Shi'a. This is in contrast to the deadly clashes in Syria, Tehran's close ally, which have been virtually ignored. Iranian officials, including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, have also bitterly criticized the Saudi involvement in Bahrain, with some predicting the imminent collapse of Saudi Arabia's Western-backed dynasty.

The global intelligence website Stratfor recently depicted the turmoil in Bahrain as the center of a wider struggle with greater strategic importance than events in Libya or elsewhere in North Africa. "Bahrain is the focal point of a struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the western littoral of the Persian Gulf," wrote Stratfor's chief executive officer, George Friedman, who added that Tehran's goal was to be "the dominant power" in the gulf.

The Wrong Frame Of View

Yet the portrayal of Iran as "the biggest show in town" rankles some specialists, who believe it runs the risk of blinding policymakers to underlying currents in the region. Scott Lucas, head of the EA World View website and an Iran analyst at Birmingham University in Britain, describes it as a "terrible approach."

"The U.S. is applying a relatively old strategy of linking up with elites in the region to a new situation and I don't think they're really thinking through the consequences" argues Lucas, who says the approach is unsuited to an "asymmetrical battle" that is being waged. "The issue of political legitimacy is the one that people are pushing. It's not the U.S.-Iran contest, it's not even the question of economic factors and if you are seen in any way as basically not really being on board with that question of political legitimacy, if you are seen as in effect trying to impose this Iran question on top of it, I think it'll bite you on the backside."

The regime in Tehran has mirrored the tendency to view the Arab revolts in geostrategic terms, portraying them as rebellions, inspired by Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979, against unpopular U.S.-backed governments.

The difference, Lucas says, is that Iran's approach is driven by propaganda purposes stemming from a need to distract its own discontented population still smarting over Ahmadinejad's bitterly disputed reelection in 2009. The U.S. policy, by contrast, is being shaped by "mistaken conceptions" about Iranian power that overlook the country's internal weakness.

"What Egypt should have proven to us is that the old way of looking at this as some kind of "Great Game", where these countries are just pawns in the Great Game and the people are just pawns, [is] absolutely out of date," Lucas says. "It also completely wipes out the internal considerations regarding Iran. This is a country which has serious internal issues. All you do by projecting this Iran game in the Middle East is ignore those issues. The U.S. made this mistake in 2009 when it went with a nuclear-first approach to Iran and missed what was happening. It's making the same mistake in 2011."

And according to Parsi, fixating on the time-honored Washington-versus-Tehran policy frame obscures the emergence of new contests in the region.

"The inherent weakness of all frames is that they may not be capable of incorporating completely new and unforeseen developments," Parsi says. "The competition between Iran and the United States is still there but it's not the only competition. There are new developments taking place in the region and the major question going forward is going to be how the relationship between Egypt, Turkey, and Iran will change the picture."

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