An Iranian Shadow on Arab Spring

By Jamsheed Choksy

Events in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and the rest of the Arab Middle East are not politically and ideologically disconnected from Iran.

From Tripoli to Tehran, repressed citizens demonstrate for freedom and representative governments. So far the uprisings have been largely untainted by anti-Western sentiments. Yet like the Iranian Revolution, and the Russian and Chinese ones before it, populist uprisings often are commandeered by extremists posing as moderates. There is even an Arabo-Persian word for such religio-political deception: taqiyya. Ayatollah Khomeini's followers deployed it with devastating impact in 1979.

Harakat al-Nahda al-Islamiyya (Islamic Renaissance Movement) in Tunisia and Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, advocate creating Islamic states, acquiring atomic warheads, abrogating peace with Israel and diminishing American and European influence in the region. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood thinks highly of "characteristics found only in the Islamic Republic of Iran" and hopes "Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia will be like that" according to Kamal al-Hilbawi, one of its leaders. Members of the Shiite Haq and Houthi movements in Bahrain and Yemen, respectively, feeling alienated from their nations' American-supported leaders, may also look to Iran for guidance as well.

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Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards already provide organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood with financing, training and conventional weapons, and is long suspected to be aiding dissident groups in Yemen and Bahrain. Add nuclear capability to that volatile mix and, as EU foreign policy representative Catherine Ashton acknowledges, the outcome will affect "the landscape of the wider Middle East and indeed global security."

Libya had a nuclear program which shared a common genesis with Tehran's through illicit proliferation of Pakistani and North Korean technology. Whether it will recommence depends on who gains control in Tripoli. If a new regime in Tripoli is Islamist, Iran would not be at all averse to helping restart Libya's nuclear program. Syrian Baathists, whose nuclear ambitions were assisted by Iran at the Israeli-destroyed al-Kibar nuclear facility, are linked to that deadly alliance. Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt independently began contesting the International Atomic Energy Agency's oversight. An Islamic regime at Cairo would have no reservations about joining Tehran in openly defying the IAEA.

Iran continues enriching uranium while the world focuses on the Arab upheaval. Once it crosses the threshold for breakout capability, the regime in Tehran will have a nuclear umbrella for itself and for "Islamic revolutionary brothers" who share its causes. Meeting recently in Tehran with representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organizations, Iranian parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani pointed out his country takes pride "in supporting Egyptians and Hamas members who are Sunni, as well as Hezbollah members who are Shia."

A nuclear weapons brandishing Iran could meddle more brazenly in its moderate Arab neighbors' internal affairs - especially when sociopolitical turbulence provides opportunities for fundamentalism to flourish. It may ratchet up asymmetric warfare against Israel through Hamas and Hezbollah without fearing direct retaliation. Even confrontations with American and European forces in the Persian Gulf would no longer be off Tehran's radar. Western military presence there is critical to global economic stability by ensuring a steady flow of oil from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations. The U.S. 5th Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, and U.S. CENTCOM, based in Qatar, would be tempting targets for the IRGC and its Arab cronies.

Muslim militants in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan could link their own anti-Russian, anti-European and anti-American agitation to the Arabo-Persian fundamentalist alliance. Indeed, Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, thanks Tehran for its "limitless support of all Islamist movements." Likewise, working with al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in strife-ridden Pakistan, Arab and Iranian mullahs could unsettle India's large and increasingly discontented Muslim minority. Iran would also be free to project itself as the Islamic superpower with which Muslim nations such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia would fearfully have to curry favor.

Iranian hard-liners are brazenly following through on Ayatollah Khomeini's desire to "correct the international political balance" using Islamist ideology bolstered by atomic prowess. So they unequivocally stand "ready to share" tenets and expertise with like-minded militants who would "lead the world into a revolutionary future." They and their fundamentalist Arab cohorts figure that even if Egypt and Libya become pro-Western military dictatorships or secular democracies there still will be countries in the Middle East whose movements for social change can be radicalized - perhaps even nuclear-ized.

The majority of freedom-seeking Muslims have no desire to trade autocracy or monarchy for theocracy - the Iranian model woos only religious hard-liners in Arab countries. But small impassioned groups exert disproportionate influence on political and social developments. The Muslim Brotherhood's previous encounters with the U.S. and other Western nations failed to moderate its positions. Rather, its leaders flew to Tehran for an Islamic unity conference shortly after Mubarak was ousted from office. They, like other Arab Muslim fundamentalists, will be tempted to emulate Tehran's political and nuclear developments upon seizing power. Such actions would disrupt not only oil and gas supplies, but entire societies.

So if a fission-powered Islamic Republic of Iran partners successfully with Arab Islamists, upheaval could ensue for the Middle East and the world. Only the advent of democratically-oriented governments in Arab capitals and Tehran will mitigate Islamic fundamentalism and nuclear threats by ensuring liberty and safety. Therefore, the U.S., EU and even Israel should welcome and aid movements in the Middle East that seek to establish freely and fairly elected governments based on secular politics.

After all, true stability is not the result of a choice between democracy and security but the affirming and sustaining of both.

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, international, and Islamic studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed are his own.

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