One year after the tainted presidential election provoked a popular uprising in Iran, the Islamic regime has lost significant legitimacy at home. But contrary to a seductive narrative that emerged in the West shortly after the election, Tehran's influence in the Middle East did not diminish as the regime scrambled to ensure its survival.
The clerical hierarchy and military apparatus realized that they needed to shore up their Islamic and populist credentials after the election protests and crackdown. Their strategy was to focus outward: an imperial Iran trying to extend its dominance over the Persian Gulf and the region as a whole. As it sought to maintain its grip on power, the Iranian regime engaged in more, not less, adventurism abroad.
By surviving its internal challenge, the Iranian regime has emerged stronger. The Sunni Arab states still view Shiite Iran as a significant threat, but they are now largely resigned to negotiation with Tehran instead of confrontation. Arab leaders are no longer convinced that their best hope for countering Iran is to stick with the United States.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Middle East has been polarized between the so-called “axis of resistance” (anti-imperialist, anti-Western, led by Iran and its allies Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas) and the “axis of accommodation” (Sunni Arab states allied with the United States).
The leaders of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah rarely miss an opportunity to portray themselves as defenders of the Palestinian cause, who reflect the popular will of millions of Muslims chafing under regimes that “sold out” to the United States. The Islamic Republic spent decades nurturing its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and, more recently, in the Palestinian territories. Tehran would not allow these alliances to wither because of internal or external pressures.