Argument

Supremely Irrelevant

Iran tried to take advantage of the Arab Spring. It failed, miserably.

One year ago today, Egyptians took to the streets to demand the removal of Hosni Mubarak's three-decade-old dictatorship. As they waved flags and chanted for the fall of the regime, another ruler 1,200 miles to the east was calculating how to use their act of courage for his own profit. On Feb. 4, at the height of the protests in Tahrir Square, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the stage in Tehran to deliver his assessment of the revolutionary moment unfolding in Cairo.

Speaking partly in Arabic, Khamenei described events in Egypt as an "Islamic awakening" inspired by Iran's own 1979 revolution. The speech was blasted out to thousands of Egyptians via text message, and Khamenei even claimed on his webpage to have personally inspired the pro-democracy demonstrations, comparing them to "the yell that the Iranian nation let out against America and against global arrogance and tyranny."

Khamenei was not alone in predicting that the Arab Spring would provide Iran an opportunity to expand its influence across the Middle East. Early on, some Washington commentators fretted that he may be right. Writing in Foreign Affairs, for example, Michael Scott Doran, a former official in President George W. Bush's administration, cautioned that the "resistance bloc" led by Tehran was "poised to pounce, jackal-like, on the wounded states of the region." And, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset as recently as October that he doubted the "high hopes that blossomed in the Arab Spring" would be realized, arguing that Iran would manipulate events to expand its influence.

But even at the time, Khamenei's assertions fell on deaf ears among the hundreds of thousands risking their lives in Tahrir Square. When asked about Khamenei's boastful claims, one Tahrir protester mocked: "Egyptians were not inspired by Iran. Rather, the Egyptian people are inspiring the world." This proved a much more astute observation than the supreme leader's. As Foreign Policy's own Marc Lynch documents in his compelling new book, The Arab Uprising, the 2011 revolts in Egypt and elsewhere were inspired by decades-old grievances against corrupt regimes and the mutually reinforcing demonstration effects of simultaneous movements rising up across the Arab world. Iran had nothing to do with it.

The reaction in Tahrir Square represented a sign of things to come. Iran has tried to exploit events, but the winds of political change have not blown in Tehran's favor.

When Mubarak fell, Iran's leaders moved out with swagger. They saw one pivotal U.S. ally gone, and perceived an opportunity to exploit unrest to undermine other pro-Western regimes, especially Saudi Arabia. They sought to develop contacts with Islamists in Egypt and Libya, expand ties to opposition movements in Yemen, and capitalize on the indigenous Shiite protests in Bahrain. And Iran's leaders seemed confident that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Tehran's state ally in the Middle East, was immune from the populist wave because of its militant stance toward Israel and the United States.

One year later, however, it is hard to find evidence that Iran has benefited from the Arab uprisings. In fact, Iran's regional position has taken a big hit. With the partial exception of Yemen, Tehran has struggled to build new networks of influence with emerging Islamist actors. Meanwhile, Assad's regime has been thoroughly delegitimized, expelled from the Arab League, and is wobbling in the face of nationwide protests. This, in turn, has created considerable anxiety for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that constitutes Iran's chief non-state ally.

The perception of Iranian meddling has also decimated Tehran's "soft power" appeal across the Arab world. Surveys conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates by Zogby International show Iran's reputation in free fall since the Arab Spring began. Just a few years ago, Iran enjoyed a strong majority of support among the populations of all these countries; as of July 2011, Iran had a net unfavorable rating in every country but Lebanon.

This is not just a temporary setback for Iran, but a sea change that could deeply undermine its regional ambitions. To be sure, the trajectory of the Arab Spring remains uncertain, and rising sectarian tensions and political backsliding in some countries may provide opportunities for Tehran to cause mischief. But several underlying dynamics suggest that Iran's struggles will continue.

As Arab publics increasingly look to their own governments to represent their interests, Iran's ability to leverage regional discontent to influence the Arab street will continue to wane. Moreover, emerging political actors vying for influence and votes in an increasingly populist landscape, including both secular parties and Sunni Arab Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will be keen to brandish their Arab nationalist credentials and will be reluctant to forge close associations with Tehran. Within hours of Mubarak's fall, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman was already taking pains to emphasize that "Egypt is not Iran. Egypt can build its own model of democracy according to its culture and Islamic preference."

The Iranian regime's brutal response to its own 2009 protest movement puts further limits on its influence over the Arab Spring. The regime's refusal to respect universal rights, while claiming to back democratic movements across the Middle East, is irrefutable evidence of hypocrisy. And Iran's continued support for the Syrian regime's bloody tactics -- at the very moment that Assad faces growing pressure from fellow Arab states and Turkey to end the violence and step aside -- only magnifies this double standard.

Classic balance of power dynamics have also triggered extensive pushback from Tehran's regional rivals. Iran's nuclear ambitions, combined with widespread concerns of Iranian-backed subversion, have motivated unprecedented arms purchases and security cooperation among the Arab Gulf states. Exaggerated perceptions of Iranian meddling also produced the ill-advised Saudi intervention into Bahrain last March. In the face of perceived Iranian threats, Saudi Arabia and its allies are likely to continue to circle the wagons.

Lastly, as the prospects of Assad's political survival in Syria continue to dim, so do Iran's hopes for regional supremacy. For years, Iran's close alliance with Syria has provided it with a platform to exert influence in the Arab world, and a base from which to funnel support to militant Lebanese and Palestinian organizations threatening Israel. But with the pro-democracy movement in Syria persisting in the face of severe repression and Assad's regime facing international estrangement, Iran's most critical alliance is increasingly tenuous.

If Assad falls, Iran may attempt to compensate by doubling down in Iraq. But the susceptibility of Iraq's Shiite-led government to Iranian hegemony is widely exaggerated and Iraq cannot replace Syria as a gateway to the Levant. Iraqi nationalism is profound and local distrust of Iran, a country Iraq waged the bloodiest war of the late twentieth century against, runs deep. Iraq also desires a long-term partnership with the United States and improved relations with its Arab neighbors -- goals that are incompatible with Iranian domination.

One year after the Egyptian revolution began, Khamenei's hopes -- and Western analysts' fears -- have not materialized, and are not likely to. Although it has been fashionable to describe Iran's growing power in the Middle East, actual events suggest the opposite. Iran's economy is reeling under sanctions, and the regime's nuclear activities and saber-rattling increasingly mark it as a pariah state. And as the Arab Spring marches on, Iran will find itself falling further behind.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Kill Shot

Banish any thought of Obama going soft on foreign policy. His third State of the Union address was wrapped in the flag of martial victory.

If there is one regular foreign policy refrain that is heard from the crop of Republican presidential aspirants it is that the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has weakened the United States and American power on the global stage.

In last night's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama demonstrated why this might be a flawed and challenging political strategy. You see, in case you'd forgotten, Barack Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The president didn't just mention this perhaps signal foreign policy accomplishment of his presidency -- he bookended his speech with it. That said, Obama was hardly reticent to talk about his other significant accomplishments in foreign policy. He started off the address with a reference to the pull-out of U.S. troops from Iraq; the winding down of the war in Afghanistan; and the successful U.S. military intervention in Libya. He spoke of the "renewal of American leadership," and pledged that "America is back," a none-too-subtle hit at the Bush administration. He also played up the vitality of U.S. alliances with Europe and Israel as well as ongoing efforts to isolate Iran and stop its nuclear program. (Not mentioned was that the Afghan drawdown followed a rather uncertain Afghan surge or that the president arguably ran roughshod over congressional prerogatives during the Libya adventure.)

What came across in the State of the Union was the politically pleasing notion that, under Obama's leadership, America is more secure, more respected, and in a stronger global position. "Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned," said Obama, "doesn't know what they're talking about." All of this seemed oriented to not only play up Obama's foreign policy strengths, but as a direct rebuttal to GOP charges of fecklessness.  After all, this message is literally the opposite of what voters who have tuned into one of the 18 and counting Republican debates have heard about this president.

Still, the real star of the show was the president's repeated invocation of the bin Laden raid. For all of Obama's other foreign policy achievements, many of which -- like the New START agreement, the expansion of the G-20, the reset with Russia, and the pivot to Asia -- will likely be more consequential over the long haul, the one that has the greatest political saliency is quite obviously the killing of bin Laden and the administration's success in taking out top al Qaeda lieutenants. It's been a very long time in American politics since a Democratic president has been able to brag about a military success along these lines and Obama seems inclined to milk it for everything it's worth.

Indeed, Obama even went so far as to link the success of the bin Laden raid to his vision for America:

The mission only succeeded because every member of that unit trusted each other -- because you can't charge up those stairs, into darkness and danger, unless you know that there's someone behind you, watching your back.

So it is with America. Each time I look at that flag, I'm reminded that our destiny is stitched together like those 50 stars and those 13 stripes. No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other's backs. And if we hold fast to that truth, in this moment of trial, there is no challenge too great; no mission too hard. As long as we're joined in common purpose, as long as we maintain our common resolve, our journey moves forward, our future is hopeful, and the state of our Union will always be strong.

Obama was making a direct link between the ethos of those who killed America's No. 1 enemy and his own progressive notion on what are the responsibilities of each citizen to the betterment of the country -- and of the role of government to lend a hand. This is clearly smart politics and pretty effective speechwirting. That said, getting a democracy as unruly as ours -- much less Congress -- to function like a well-drilled SEAL team is a tad unrealistic. This is particularly true when one considers that the U.S. military, which Obama venerated as the finest institution in the country, is also probably the single most undemocratic institution in American society -- and purposely so. Indeed, there was something a bit off-putting, albeit unsurprising, about listening to the president so brazenly cloaking his domestic vision for the country, and his key campaign messages, in a military action of which all Americans -- Democrats and Republicas -- can feel a shared sense of pride.

Nonetheless, it does provide compelling evidence that Obama will run aggressively on his foreign policy success and his record as commander-in-chief. For liberals hoping for perhaps a less militarist message and a focus on diplomacy and soft power rather than the use of force as lodestars of American power ... well, last night wasn't quite their evening. That whole "changing the mindset" of U.S. foreign policy that Obama talked about in 2008 may have to wait a few more years.

Of course, none of this will stop Republicans from making the claim that the president has weakened America -- and some will say they have truth on their side -- but then again, they didn't kill the man responsible for Sept. 11.

That was Barack Obama, just in case you'd forgotten.

Win McNamee/Getty Images