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Iran's response to Middle East protests is muted

By Joby Warrick
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.

John McLaughlin, acting director of the CIA in the George W. Bush administration, said it is typical of Iran to wait out the unrest, rather than to attempt to intervene in a way that might backfire or draw unwanted attention.

"It would be very Iranian to just sit back and see how it plays out," McLaughlin said. "They have a lot of patience, and with the current drift of things, I suspect they're looking at the events and thinking it all looks pretty good."

Legacy of repression

Yet the geopolitical gains reaped by Iran may be temporary, according to several former and current U.S. officials and regional experts. Although Iran appears to have gained ground on its opponents, its continued suppression of dissent has further tarnished the image of the Islamic republic in the eyes of tens of millions of Arabs who support democratic reform in their countries, the officials and experts said.

Reza Aslan, an Iranian American scholar and author, said few Arabs would care to duplicate Iran's experiment in Islamic theocracy, with its legacy of poverty, isolation and repression. Any remaining luster was extinguished, he said, when the Iranian government violently crushed the 2009 Green Revolution, a popular uprising that presaged this year's unrest across the Arab world.

"Pressure is going to continue to build on Iran," said Aslan, a professor at the University of California at Riverside. "Iran sees itself as an exemplar for the region for having thrown off an American-backed dictatorship. But it really only replaced one tyrant with another."

A European diplomat with more than a decade of experience observing Middle Eastern politics saw short-term gains for Iran as U.S. influence declines in the region and as the West's attention is temporarily diverted from Tehran's nuclear program. Yet the Iranian government inevitably is vulnerable to the same forces that toppled repressive regimes among its neighbors, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his country's diplomatically sensitive assessments of the unfolding events.

"For Iran, the shine is gone," the diplomat said. "The people in the streets are looking toward the West, toward democracy, not toward al-Qaeda or Iran."

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