What we could be seeing is the rise of a third paradigm – a more liberal paradigm embodied by Egypt that will diminish the influence of not just Saudi Arabia, but of Iran as well. While a democratic outcome in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and elsewhere is far from certain, the popular revolts were clearly liberal revolts and have provided a new model for the region. Egypt is the largest Arab country and has long been a regional trend setter. With a new popularly elected government in Cairo, Egypt will likely be much more influential than the Mubarak regime in Middle East affairs. This combined with the fact that it is largely a Sunni-Arab country, while Iran is largely Shia-Persian, Iran will likely lose some influence to Egypt. ~Max Bergmann
As far as I can tell, Bergmann is the first one to attempt a serious counter-argument against the claim that popular uprisings in Arab states this year are working to Iran’s benefit. Bergmann’s scenario is possible, but a lot depends on what happens in Egypt. It seems to me that more than a few supporters of the “Iraq the model” theory believed that the fall of Hussein and democratization of Iraq would present an alternative and a rebuke to the Iranian system, and war supporters dismissed predictions of increased Iranian influence in Iraq in much the same way. As I recall, there was a lot of talk about Baghdad as the former seat of the caliphate, the power of Iraqi nationalism, and a belief that democratic government in Iraq wouldn’t just resist Iranian influence but would lead to the subversion of the Iranian government as well. When democratization empowered the Shi’ite majority and Iraq turned into a sectarian nightmare, the idea that the new Iraq would weaken Iranian influence proved to be flat wrong. Each “liberation” has resulted in an increase in Iranian influence, and it is difficult to see why the same isn’t going to happen in the future.
If Egypt ends up having a popularly elected government, it will be preoccupied with constitutional and political reform, attempting to address the deep economic grievances that fueled the uprising, and to repair the economic damage caused by the struggle to oust Mubarak. It may not have an interest in devoting much time and resources to containing Iranian influence in the region. At the very least, it is going to have less interest than the old regime did. The military may retain considerable control over setting foreign policy, but it is not going to be as free to ignore domestic politics as it was. Should the military have less control and Egypt pursues a more independent foreign policy, that will likely make it more inclined not to align itself against Iran on certain major issues. What was once a reliable opponent of Iranian influence and Iran’s proxies will probably become less hostile. Iran may also attempt to cultivate and support political factions inside Egypt as it has done in Iraq, and it could have some success. Iran’s support for Hamas suggests that Tehran has enough flexibility in its alliances that it is not limited to working with Shi’ite populations. If Egypt’s political transition does not go smoothly, but is instead wracked by turmoil and weak civilian governments, that could consume the attention of Egypt’s political leadership and leave little time for regional affairs.
Democracy promotion and the “freedom agenda” contributed to the strengthening and empowerment of Iranian proxies and Iran-backed political parties in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. No less important, obstacles to Iranian influence disappeared during the last decade thanks in part to these policies. It is possible that democratization in other Arab countries will have different results, but there aren’t very strong reasons for thinking so.