The "war on terror" was pretty great for Iran's hardliners. The Bush administration's 2002 inclusion of Iran in the "Axis of Evil" was a major blow to Iranian moderates, discrediting their calls for U.S.-Iran rapprochement and supporting the claims of Iran's hard-liners that engagement with America was pointless. The invasion of Iraq removed Iran's greatest enemy, Saddam Hussein, against whom Iran had fought a staggeringly destructive eight-year war. Iraq's postwar government included a significant number of Iran's former clients -- including eventual Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq -- in top leadership positions.
The perceived success of Iran's Lebanese ally Hezbollah against Israel in 2006 -- in a devastating month-long combination of bombing and ground combat hailed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East" -- also proved a huge boost to Iranian hawks. A 2007 poll of Egyptians placed Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as the two most admired leaders in the region. The fact that two Shiite leaders topped an Egyptian poll, even as Iraq's sectarian civil war raged and Arab leaders like Jordan's King Abdullah warned of Shiite inroads into Sunni Arab lands, is a testament to Iran and Hezbollah's success in defying the West.
It also represented the success of a major propaganda plank of the Iranian Revolution. Since the founding of the Islamic Republic, Iran's leaders have endeavored to present Iran as the standard-bearer of Muslim resistance to Western intervention and domination. This resistance ethic -- shared by Islamist organizations across the region -- predates the Iranian Republic but was taken up by Iran's religious revolutionaries, who have continued to represent themselves and the republic as part of an Islamic vanguard. This ethic also helps bridge ethnic and sectarian divides, providing convenient pretext for Iran's support for militant Islamist groups like Shiite Arab Hezbollah and Sunni Arab Hamas against what they see as Israel's Western-implanted colonial state.
But the Islamic Republic is currently experiencing the worst crisis of legitimacy, both at home and abroad, since its founding. In the wake of Iran's controversial presidential elections, and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that followed, Iran's status as vanguard of the resistance has been eroding. Arabs who have themselves struggled for years under corrupt authoritarian dictatorships, and who have looked longingly at Iran's democracy -- seriously proscribed as it was -- watched in June with horror as truncheon-wielding Basiji thugs ran down demonstrators in the streets, in scenes that echoed their own government's crackdowns. They read of brutal incarcerations, torture, disappearances, and rape by prison authorities.
Arab Muslim audiences have also heard many of the Green Movement's leaders deploy the language of Islamic resistance ? see, for instance, presidential candidate Meir Hussein Mousavi's declaration that he was "ready to be martyred" for the cause of reform ? against the government and seen some of Iran's leading clerics condemning the regime as unjust, undemocratic, and un-Islamic. For a government that has based much of its regional appeal upon being a righteous Islamic answer to a corrupt and abusive West, the implications of this are significant.
Chief among the regime's religious critics is Iran's most prominent clerical dissident, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. A close revolutionary confidante of Ayatollah Khomeini, Montazeri was Khomeini's designated successor until his criticisms of the authoritarian nature of the new regime earned him rejection by Khomeini, followed by years of house arrest. Montazeri's has been the election's most persistent critic, and the Green Movement's most ardent source of religious authority.
Other clerics have joined with Montazeri's critique. In early July, the Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, a prominent group of Iranian seminarians, declared Iran's elections illegitimate. In August, Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Sane'i, a leading reformist cleric, delivered a highly critical speech to his fellow scholars in Qom, something that would have been unthinkable before June 12. While these criticisms are by no means decisive, they have steadily chipped away at the Iranian government's "Islamic" and "republican" claims.
And other Islamic activists in the region have taken notice. Speaking at an Iran symposium at the University of Maryland in early November, Stanford University Iran scholar Abbas Milani referred to a recent paper by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood -- the seminal Islamist organization in the Middle East, who were themselves an inspiration to Iran's revolutionaries -- which Milani said described the brotherhood's shifting view. "Before June 12," Milani said, "the view among the Muslim Brotherhood was to support Iran against the West's bullying." But now, because of the very public post-election violence and repression, the brotherhood is finding it more difficult to defend Iran. According to Milani, groups like Hezbollah and Iraq's Shia parties are also "hedging their bets [and] are no longer assured that their future lies in an alliance with the Islamic Republic."
Some analysts are more circumspect about the long-term implications of Iran's domestic crisis. Michael Wahid Hanna, a Middle East analyst at the Century Foundation, predicts "enthusiasm for Iran, the notion of resistance will be rehabilitated at the first instance when armed conflict breaks out." Much depends on what can be done, Hanna said, "to shape the regional realities that the Iranians exploit to gain some leverage with Arab audiences."
What does this mean for U.S. policy? The Obama administration has shown in no uncertain terms that it considers the Israel-Palestine conflict as foremost among those regional realities that need to be "shaped" in order to blunt Iran's appeal. As Obama noted during the campaign -- in one interview he referred to the conflict as a "constant sore" that "infect[s] all of our foreign policy" -- he considers a peace agreement imperative to U.S. national security. In addition to ending the occupation of Palestine and securing Israel, it would deny Iran (as well as other extremist actors, including al-Qaeda) a treasured propaganda tool.
On the other hand, Iran clearly recognizes that preventing that outcome is essential to preserving that propaganda tool, which has facilitated Iran's appeal to Arab publics throughout the Middle East. Peace could have some very negative consequences for Iranian hawks, and they should be expected to play spoiler. Further, with Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps now "essentially running Iranian foreign policy in the region," according to Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment, Iran could possibly seek to externalize its domestic difficulties and deflect attention from its recalcitrance on the nuclear issue, by provoking another regional crisis that again results in U.S.-made Israeli bombs falling on Muslim civilians.
The recent seizure at sea by Israel of a shipment of what Israel claims were Iranian arms headed for Hezbollah could be an indication that these operations are already under way. Iran's hard-line regime could be just as dangerous when cornered, if not more, than when ascendant. As with the nuclear negotiations, the tough calculus for the Obama administration will be how to frustrate Iran's troublemaking in the region while also leaving political space for Iran's opposition to continue to erode the regime at home.