Iran's response to Middle East protests is muted

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 5:38 PM

When Shiite protesters took to the streets of Bahrain three weeks ago, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials watched anxiously to see how Iran, the kingdom's notoriously meddlesome neighbor, would intervene. What happened - or didn't happen - surprised them.

No Shiite clerics from Iran visited Bahrain to denounce its Sunni rulers. There were no provocateurs whipping up anti-government fervor in Shiite neighborhoods. Even popular Shiite Web sites controlled by Iranian clerics were unusually subdued.

The muted response fits a pattern observed by intelligence analysts and experts since the wave of Middle East unrest began in December. Iran, which so often has sought to assert its influence in neighboring countries, is sitting this one out - apparently having concluded that it wins by simply doing nothing.

"Iran sees that everything is already going its way," said a former U.S. intelligence official who consults with Arab governments on internal security. From the Persian Gulf states to Lebanon, "they have decided to hold back."

Current and former intelligence officials and diplomats said in interviews that Iran's restraint reflects its growing confidence in the region.

Since January, the Islamic republic has seen its largest regional rival - the government of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak - toppled by protesters, while the Iranian-backed Hezbollah party has strengthened its grip on Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, another regional bulwark against Iranian expansion, is distracted by uprisings on its borders, particularly in Yemen, Oman and Bahrain.

Meanwhile, U.S. influence in the region has plummeted with the loss of allies and prestige. Intelligence officials and diplomats predict that, even under their rosiest scenarios for a more democratic Middle East, the region's emerging governments will be less supportive of U.S. efforts to isolate Iran politically. Already, the Obama administration is having to rethink an Iran strategy that relied on Middle Eastern allies to counterbalance Tehran's conventional forces and prevent cheating on economic sanctions, the officials said.

"Iran has risen by default," said Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer in the Middle East and the author of "The Devil We Know," a 2008 book about Iran's ascendancy as a regional power. "Iran sees the influence of the United States waning in the Middle East, and they know that our allies are on wobbly legs and possibly going down."

Ties to other Shiites

Iran maintains deep cultural and religious ties to other Shiite populations in the region, including in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq. In the past, it has also sought to directly influence the internal politics of Iraq and Afghanistan, promoting pro-Iranian policies and politicians.

Several Middle Eastern governments hit by unrest were initially convinced that Iran was behind the disturbances, a conviction based on decades of experience. Officials in Bahrain have repeatedly complained of past interference by Iran, which maintains close ethnic and religious ties to some members of the country's majority Shiite population.

Not so this time. The striking lack of Iranian involvement in Bahrain's current unrest has been confirmed by senior Obama administration officials as well as intelligence operatives based in the region. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the Persian Gulf states' deep concerns about Iran's intentions had not been realized.

"We are seeing no indications of any credible influence from Tehran," Mullen said, speaking to reporters after a visit to the region.

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