Wednesday, January 19th | 17 Shevat 5782

February 22, 2011 12:59 pm

How Freedom’s Foes Exploit Arab Unrest

avatar by John Bolton


In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's fall has not altered the fundamental reality of military control, but it inevitably means more internal focus, and less energy opposing Iran's regional hegemonic efforts. Photo: Ramy Raoof

As Iran’s rulers busily suppress opposition to their dictatorship, they’re poised to seize greater regional influence because of pervasive Middle Eastern unrest.

Notwithstanding the undeniable benefits of real, sustainable democracy, it must be secured and enhanced over time, not merely proclaimed in an adrenaline rush. And the hard work to achieve democracy in the Middle East remains. Ask Russians, whose democracy may be disappearing before its adherents can nurture an enduring free society’s culture and institutions.

Moreover, democracy’s theoretical international-relations benefits (the “democratic peace”) remain theoretical. Practically, Israel’s security is almost certainly in greater jeopardy. Neighboring Arab states, particularly monarchies with close ties to Washington and critical to the global economy, feel similarly threatened.

By contrast, Iran’s power is dramatically enhanced, however unintentionally, by the consequences of the region’s anti-regime demonstrations. When strong Sunni Arab governments are replaced by newer, unsteady regimes, their prospects for democracy notwithstanding, Iran sees weakness to exploit for its own strategic purposes.

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Although Libya and Yemen have today’s headlines, Bahrain is actually the most dramatic case in play. The Middle Eastern base of the US Fifth Fleet, Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy has long been vulnerable to Iranian subversion, and demonstrations there are likely based primarily on its Sunni-Shia divide, with the population 70 percent Shia. Last week, Gulf Cooperation Council countries stood by Bahrain’s king, implying willingness to provide military assistance, and the Saudis apparently urged forceful action against the demonstrators, despite contrary US advice. So far unanswered is whether Iran is actively causing mischief, hoping for the unnecessary lethal force used by Bahrain’s government in response.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s fall has not altered the fundamental reality of military control, but it inevitably means more internal focus, and less energy opposing Iran’s regional hegemonic efforts. Moreover, Mubarak’s successor will likely be less sympathetic to the Camp David Accords; even pro-democracy leaders have called for revising this foundation of Middle Eastern stability, and things can only go downhill from there. And Iran’s dispatch of warships to the Suez Canal graphically for the first time since the mullahs seized power in 1979 demonstrates its confidence in projecting power against Israel.

Are other GCC governments vulnerable to either Muslim Brotherhood-style extremists or Iranian subversion? Because of their oil wealth and the popular legitimacy the monarchies claim, perhaps not. But if, as in Bahrain, economics is not the dominant factor, both Iran and Sunni extremists could try to topple these regimes and seize control of hydrocarbon revenues, directly or indirectly.

How should America respond? We are legitimately interested in lessening Iran’s influence — which is certainly not democratic, as events in Iran itself demonstrate daily. Indeed, any system resting on absolute theocratic control is necessarily destructive of freedom of conscience. Accordingly, Washington and its allies should seek to block Iran even as it seeks cover under “pro-democracy” pretenses.

In Cold War days, we understood that pro-Communist forces called for “free elections” under “united fronts,” cynically using the forms of democracy to undermine its substance. We were not deceived then by Moscow, nor should we be deceived today by Tehran (or, similarly, by Sunni extremists).

We should encourage states transitioning to democracy to protect themselves from Iranian efforts to subvert their progress. Iran funds and arms terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, a subsidiary of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Preventing Iran from using Hamas as a conduit to the Brotherhood, and similar arrangements elsewhere, should be a major priority — just as, by analogy, US law rightfully prohibits foreign campaign contributions. Moreover, Washington could help trace illicit Iranian money flows, making such information available to interested states.

We also should focus on undermining the Tehran regime and its puppets. For too long, we’ve said and done little as Iranian and Syrian opposition groups have been marginalized. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is Lebanon, where the democratic Cedar Revolution is now in mortal peril from Hezbollah and Iran. Playing only defense makes no more sense in international politics than in sports.

Finally, we should not apologize for defending US national interests even if they conflict with demands for immediate elections. Our interests derive from our own democracy, giving them ample legitimacy. Welcoming democracy for others does not entail putting our interests in second place, even if advancing our interests overrides opposing views of pro-democracy forces. That is a hard but necessary truth. We may wish it was otherwise, but for our own protection, our statesmen must recognize reality.

John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, is author of “Surrender Is Not an Option.”
This article originally appeared in the New York Post.

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