The Arab Spring’s Impact on U.S.-Iran Rivalry

Ellen Laipson

  • How has the Arab spring changed the strategic environment for U.S.-Iran relations?
Turbulence in Arab politics will have both direct and indirect effects on U.S.-Iran relations.  The uncertain outcomes–specifically which countries other than Tunisia, Egypt and possibly Yemen undergo leadership or systemic changes–will mean that neither Tehran nor Washington can be sure who their friends and partners will be. Several Arab states may redefine their foreign policies.
In Egypt, policies may be less closely coordinated with Washington, less premised on the 1979 peace treaty with Israel as an anchor of its regional relationships, and more focused on reasserting Egypt’s historic role as a leader and driver of Arab politics. 
Gulf countries, while still willing to partner with the United States on the threat from Iran and radical extremism, are moving to a more assertive posture. Their strong defense of Bahrain’s monarchy suggests that the Sunni-Shiite tensions aroused over the past decade or more in Lebanon and then Iraq could well reemerge as a defining issue for the Gulf states.
All this suggests that the regional relations among Arab states, between the Arabs and Iran, and between the region and the United States, are in flux.  In the best case, a more confident and at least partly democratic Arab world would find its own ways of managing the challenge of Iran’s role in the region.  A region with several power centers—including Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia—would be better able to coordinate on regional security, and to provide a counter-balance to Iran’s ambitions and influence in the region.  Such a development would indirectly converge with U.S. interests and strategies. 
But tensions are emerging between Arab republics, which are mired in messy transitions, and the monarchies of the Gulf, Morocco and Jordan, which are defending the status quo or incremental reform. The shifting regional dynamics suggest that the United States and Iran will continue to compete over which country best embodies the values and aspirations of the peoples of the Middle East.  This may not be central to the prospects for a positive change in U.S.-Iran relations, but it will be part of the strategic context in which the long saga of U.S.-Iran relations takes place.    
  • So far, how has the Arab spring altered U.S. or Iranian influence in the region?
In the short run, both Iran and the United States have diminished influence.  Events since January have been largely domestic. Each society is focused on its own history, its capacity to change, and an effort to find a new political equilibrium that better reflects the people’s will.  The activists who made the Arab spring are proud of the fact that they worked without outside help or interference.  So all outside parties have been observers more than participants, and all are scrambling to learn more about the new and potential leaders of Arab societies and states. 
  • How significant is the resumption of Egypt-Iran relations?  Will Iran be able to make new alliances with changes in Arab leadership?
Egypt and Iran have been in a cold war since Egypt’s commitment to peace with Israel three decades ago.  Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Araby, who was recently elected Arab League secretary-general, said that Egypt wanted good relations with all states, including Iran.  But the requisite legal and diplomatic steps to resume relations have not yet been taken. 
Resuming ties between two pivotal states would obviously be seen as an achievement for Iran and a setback for the United States, which has urged all countries to isolate Iran through political and economic pressures until it changes policy on its controversial nuclear program.  But even if diplomatic relations are restored, most Arab states are likely to remain concerned about Tehran’s intentions and ability to destabilize individual countries or regional relations.  Arab states may be less intensely focused on Iran’s nuclear activities, and more on Iran’s ability to foment sectarian tensions or to encourage Hezballah and other allies to provoke conflict with Israel.  So Iran may well make some advances in formal state-to-state relations, but true alliances with major Sunni Arab states are not likely.  
  • How will the Syrian uprising affect the rivalry between the United States and Iran for influence in the region?
Syria’s turmoil has posed a great challenge to Iran, as Syria is Iran’s most important and close relationship in the Arab world.  Reports suggest that Iran is providing direct assistance to the crackdown against protestors. Many observers see similarities between Iran’s treatment of its opposition since the disputed 2009 presidential election and the Syrian government’s crackdown.  The U.S. position is slowly becoming more assertive against the regime of President Bashar Assad, as the brutality and the human cost of the crackdown increases. 
The fall of the Assad regime would be a grave setback for Iranian influence in the region. But external powers with deep interests in Syria as a regional actor, including the United States, France and other EU members, have not yet declared their support for systemic regime change, given the uncertainty about what would emerge after this long dictatorship.  Change in Syria over time would be a gain for the West and a significant loss for Iran.   


Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service.
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