Small Wars Journal

The Iranian View of Stage Two of the Arab Spring

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 6:30am
It has certainly been a significant period as of late in the region and across the international community.  The killing of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) second-in-command Said al-Shihri on September 10 by Yemeni security forces was followed by the assassination attempt on Yemen Defense Minister Major General Mohammed Nasser the next day.  Also on September 10, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri confirmed the killing of Al Qaeda’s (AQ’s) Libyan-born second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi.  We then witnessed the tragic death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi concurrent with the storming of the U.S. Embassies in Cairo and Sana’a.  Some in the West are trying to connect the dots and link all these events. These are game-changing times. Is there an Iranian role in what appears to be Stage 2 of the Arab Spring?
The Iranian regime is doing everything it can to improve its geo-political position in the region by settling old scores with Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies. Despite what’s going on in Syria, we posit that Iran views the Arab Spring as their success.  The Iranian regime claims that these are Islamic revolutions that align to stages and lessons learned from their own revolutionary experience. The theocratic regime in Tehran argues that the so-called Arab Spring began with the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  We assess that Iran is pushing its own revolutionary model in the region as it tries to influence these historic changes. 
So what is the model?  We believe Iran considers its Islamic Revolution to be marked by the following key stages:

Stage1: Dictators supported by America are overthrown by the people;

Stage 2: Embassies are stormed; and

Stage 3: New revolutionary politicians build a government based on Islamic law.

This is what occured in Iran leading up to its 1979 revolution.  For the Iranian regime, this simple model is what is occurring in the region now, particularly given recent events in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.

Iran seeks a Stage 3 outcome for the countries in transition. It seeks this because it believes quasi-democratic Islamic governments will eventually be natural allies to Iran.  With the exception of Iran’s ally Syria - which clearly Iran has other plans for - Stage 1 has happened in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and also Tunisia. 

Let us look at Yemen in particular.  We believe that following the protests and events in Egypt and Libya, Iran encouraged its Yemeni proxies to organize and support violent demonstrations against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Yemen, thus to achieve Stage 2.  But Iranian proxies were not alone in these efforts.  Former Yemeni President Saleh and his family also played a role in the violent protests.  For example, security breaches within the Yemeni security forces that allowed protestors to reach within the U.S. Embassy compound in Sana’a were likely due to mixed orders given to units with different loyalties. A fragile transitional government in Yemen and former President Saleh’s continued presence in the country make some commanders of units unsure of where to place their loyalty: to the new government or to the possible return of the former President or a member of his family. In all likelihood, when the protesters made their way to the Embassy, members of Saleh’s camp told security unit commanders to allow the protesters in.

Both Saleh and Iran are upset with the U.S. diplomatic mission in Yemen and seek to undermine it.  We believe the Saleh camp and Iran were behind the violent acts at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a.  Additionally, AQAP may have stated that they wish U.S. diplomats in Yemen killed, but they have not claimed the attack at the Embassy.  AQAP will support anything that supports their overall intent; they will claim anyone’s success. 

The protests in Yemen were not because of the disgraceful video insulting Islam’s most revered prophet, or the deaths of the AQ and AQAP seconds-in-command mentioned earlier.  Nor were the attacks a direct result of protests in Egypt or Libya.  We believe the protests were about destabilizing Yemen’s transition and thus reducing U.S. influence.

Protests in Sana’a were motivated by unemployment, but mobilized by Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis, and facilitated by backers of the former regime.

The numbers of protesters at the U.S. Embassy did not match the tens of thousands motivated during the revolution who regularly hold massive peaceful demonstrations calling for the banishment of senior military officials still connected to the former regime.  Also, the failure of Yemeni security forces on the first day was uncharacteristic of a country that has resisted daily protests of mass volume over the last months.

Protestors in general over the last weeks have not represented the majority of Yemenis. They were in reality instruments of other domestic agendas.  President Hadi was clear about this point in his immediate Press Release, focused on the U.S., after the embassy was breached.

As for the bigger picture, we believe Iran considers the attacks on the embassies in the region as Stage 2 of a wider “Islamic Spring.”  A change in tactic by the losers of democratic change and a new Iranian approach to these Arab governments in transition is a strategic inflection point requiring a U.S. strategic response.  Attacking the U.S. and other Western countries on sovereign territory in partner countries (Stage 2) is clearly a game changer.

The departing regimes in these countries recognize that democratic change in their countries is a function of the international community's ability to support that change through their diplomatic missions.

We believe the anger from the anti-Islamic film is ebbing and people across the Islamic world are beginning to reconcile that America cannot be held accountable for the acts of irresponsible and misguided individuals. In a similar manner, the U.S. will consider what it can do – despite fundamental rights – to prevent freedom of expression from inciting violence.

In order for Iran and the losers of democratic change to remain relevant, they believe they must do all in their power to disrupt the diplomatic missions of western countries whose support is vital for the success of these transitional governments.  Iran will exploit any openings in the region to significantly weaken U.S. diplomatic missions in Arab Spring countries and to hasten Islamic governments in accordance to its 3-Stage model. Yemen was Iran's lowest hanging fruit during these latest protests, and they tried to exploit domestic fissures within Yemen’s political and security institutions to break its bond with America and the international community.  Fortunately for Yemen, the transitional government was quick to rebuff these efforts.

About the Author(s)

Sterling Jensen is a senior Research Fellow at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.  The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Robert Sharp is an associate professor at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.  The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Mark Pyruz

Wed, 10/03/2012 - 1:58pm

There are a number of problems with this assessment. For one, the model presents an erroneous staging chronology. Iran's storming of embassies took place after a new government was founded. Also, Iran's perspective of the "Arab Spring" is that of an "Islamic Awakening" and not "Islamic Revolution." This is more than mere semantic difference. Most importantly, Iran believes that any MENA country with a government representative and accountable to its own people's sensibilities and popular determination will possess key foreign policies similar or in line with that of Iran's. This is particularly the case with regards to Israel.

Perhaps the best window into Iran's persepective can be found in what took place at the recent NAM summit in Tehran, where the 120-member "international community" of the Non-Aligned Movement supported Iran's nuclear energy program and the question of Syria was addressed in a more regional-centric manner.

There is also a problem with the the narrative of Iran "settling old scores with KSA" with regards to the "Arab Spring". It's more vice-versa, with KSA energetically attempting to tilt the regional balance of power back in its favor, following the loss of Iraq to Iran and the "resistance bloc", through what KSA perceives as the utterly misguided "Operation Iraqi Freedom.

And, it should be pointed out that it's quite a stretch to link Iran with unrest developments counter to U.S. interests in Yemen. For geographic and cultural factors, the Houthis are not in any way a significant political or social force in the Yemeni capitol.