Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Conversation: The Impact of the 2011 Uprisings on World Politics, Part I

I choose to open the conversation by discussing the role of Iran in these events. After all, Iran is supposed to be the big winner. That is the conventional wisdom according to writers at the The New York Times and Foreign Policy.

You know the logic of these assessments. Now that powerful Sunni countries are engulfed in internal turmoil, they will be inward-focused, preoccupied with ensuring stability and order. They simply will not have the time nor the effort to contain Iran’s moves in the region. Furthermore, now that Iran’s arch-rival Hosni Mubarak is gone, the will to contain Iran is also waning. Hence, we find that an essential part of Washington’s containment doctrine is now in shambles. The regional shackles have been unlocked and Iran has the requisite freedom to expand its influence as it wishes. In sum, so goes the logic, these uprisings have played right into the hands of Iran.

Clearly, this is a dark view of events. And if true, this has significant consequences: regional stability, the safety of Israel, and US foreign policy are all at stake. But let us leave that aside, take a step back and think for a moment. Have all of these events been that much of a game-changer? I have a few thoughts below.

1. Countries experiencing internal political instability or transition, or even conflict and violence, will not have the energy or time to conduct business as usual, particularly on foreign policy matters. Just look at the cases of civil wars, ethnic conflicts, regime transitions. In this sense, at least for a while, Egypt and Tunisia will be distracted countries, unable to give their full gaze to events outside of their borders.

2. A part of the conventional wisdom assumes that Iran will remain internally stable. But who knows what will happen inside of Iran. Although it is unlikely that Iran will soon suffer the same fate as Egypt, such an outcome cannot be ruled out. As revealed by the mass protests and strikes and periodic bombings over the last few years, we do know that there are many Iranians who are angry at the government and the clerics. And any significant instability in Iran will cause Tehran to scale back its own foreign policy ambitions.

3. I do not buy the idea that the so-called Sunni-Shia divide is inherently important to the politics of the region. Quite frankly, this divide is important primarily because it is fanned by power-hungry leaders and opportunistic extremists. Empirical research by John Mueller, among others, illustrates this point. That said, to the extent it does exist and is real, it only cuts against Iran, right? The numbers favor Sunnis (about 85% of all Muslims are Sunni). Shia Iran is in the minority and all of the powerful countries are Sunni (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, etc.). The people-power movements do not change these facts.

4. If the events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere have been led by pro-democratic movements and motivated by aspirations for freedom and transparency, and so far this seems to be the case, then I cannot imagine that these revolutionary countries would have much affection for the closed, oppressive government in Tehran. If anything, I suspect they would identify more closely with the opposition Green Movement.

5. As is obvious, an essential part of the uprisings has been grounded in the idea that it is good to overthrow a dominant, unyielding, restrictive authority. The people want to be free to chart their own course in the country and region they live. This revolutionary spirit suggests, at least for the moment, that they are probably not very willing to let an outside influence, whether that influence is headquartered in Washington or Tehran, bully them into submission. I expect, given the opportunity to do so, the people to strive to prevent any actor from infringing upon their perceived national interests.

6. It is important to note that these uprisings appear to be motivated by democracy rather than Islam. There is no evidence of the protesters seeking to form a region dominated by Islamic governments. Sure, a more open Egypt will seek better ties to Iran. And letting Iranian warships pass through the Suez for the first time since the revolution in 1979 is evidence of this. Yes, Egypt might take positions close to Iran on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. But in the end, normalizing relations is not the same as forging an alliance. And the former does not necessarily lead to the latter.

7. I expect the foreign policy process in newly-toppled regimes, like in Egypt and Tunisia and perhaps Libya, will appear to American eyes as moving at a sluggish pace. A part of that will reflect the priorities of these internally-troubled states. Internal affairs will take precedence over foreign ones. Another part will stem from the nature of building and consolidating more open and democratic regimes. These new regimes will no longer be able to rubber stamp policies through state. Policies will likely be shaped, deliberated, revised, and implemented by a number of different political players. Gathering these players and getting them to work on the same page is labor-intensive and time-consuming, even for fully consolidated democracies like the U.S. and Britain. Such tasks will be even more onerous in nascent democratic regimes, where the rules of the road are new and murky and in need of adjustment over time.

Overall, given the circumstances, I expect Sunni states to balance Iran, but in a slower and more methodical fashion, with much prodding and plenty of incentives from the U.S. The coalition might not be quite as united as it was prior to January 2011, but it should be effective enough to prevent Iranian expansionism.

That is my position on issue of Iran. What is your take, Yohanes

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