Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, leader of the largest Arab nation during the 1950s and 1960s, was one of the most popular and charismatic statesmen of the twentieth century. In his 1954 memoir, The Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser claimed that Egypt’s unique geography and historical legacy enhanced its ability to influence Africa, the Muslim world, and the Arab world. Of these three significant regions, it was the Arab world which captivated Nasser’s attention the most: “I always imagine that in this region in which we live there is a role wandering aimlessly about in search of an actor to play it.”
Nasser’s ultimate vision was to become the undisputed leader of the Arab world, and to exert his influence beyond Egypt’s borders. He implemented a brief union with Syria (1958-61) and renamed both nations as the United Arab Republic, but the project collapsed because Syrians viewed it more as an Egyptian occupation rather than a merger of equals.
In 1962 during the North Yemen Civil War, Yemeni radicals and conservative royalists competed for power, and Nasser, hoping to expand his influence into the Arabian Peninsula, supported the radicals while Saudi Arabia, seeking to curb Nasser’s influence, backed the royalists. Nasser’s side ultimately won but he paid a heavy price: at least 10,000 Egyptian troops died, and the Yemeni intervention became known as “Egypt’s Vietnam.” Moreover, he tarnished his image as an Arab hero, especially for deploying chemical weapons against fellow Arabs.
Egypt’s humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967 exposed the final illusion of Nasser’s pan-Arab vision and power projection. To absolve himself of responsibility, he perpetuated a myth that direct American and British intervention led to Israel’s stunning triumph. After his death in 1970, no other Arab leader including Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi were able to replicate Nasser’s charisma and vision.
The Arab uprisings which began in Tunisia in 2010 has left the Arab world in disarray. Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya are plagued with civil war and insurrection, and their central governments do not exercise control over all of their territory. Libya has two rival governments. Lebanon has been without a president for 20 months. Jordan is threatened by Islamic State and burdened with sheltering one million Syrian refugees. Egypt faces many domestic challenges including a jihadist insurgency in Sinai which shows no signs of abating.
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Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has led an unsuccessful Sunni Arab alliance to expel the Iranian-backed Houthis from power in Yemen. The Yemeni quagmire coupled with Saudi Arabia’s opposition to Iranian expansion may help explain why Saudi Arabia executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on 2 January 2016, knowing such a provocation would anger Tehran. Saudi Arabia continues to stoke sectarian tensions even with non-Arab Sunni players like Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
Until the 1979 Revolution, Iran, which is not an Arab country, occupied a marginal position in Middle Eastern affairs. Since 1979, Iran has sought to export its Islamic revolution, extend its influence in neighboring nations, and support Shia communities outside its borders.
For decades, Saddam’s Iraq served as a bulwark against Iranian expansion in the Middle East. The 2003 US-led invasion and destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’thist regime unintentionally strengthened Iran’s ability to influence Iraq’s Shia majority, and Tehran’s influence in Baghdad is unprecedented in modern Middle Eastern history.
In 2004, Jordanian King Abdullah II warned of a rising “Shia crescent” that begins in Iran and extends to Iraq. It continues in Syria with Assad’s Alawite Shia sect and ends with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iran now has extended its influence with the Houthis in Yemen, the same group that the Saudis are hoping to drive from power. The Saudi-led Arab dispute with Iran is primarily about geostrategic interests and which side exerts more prestige and influence. Both sides have stoked sectarian tension although it is imprecise to view the conflict in purely sectarian terms. For instance, Iran has supported Christian Armenia in its claims over disputed territory with Shia Azerbaijan and Sunni Hamas and Islamic Jihad in their struggle against Israel. Yet Sunni Arab anxiety is real. Analyst Hassan Hassan astutely notes that Arab monarchies feel that there is now not a Shia crescent but a “full moon” and they are surrounded by Iranian Shia influence.
With Iranian influence extending into Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana'a, Iran directly and indirectly influences one-fifth of the Arab world. This is something Nasser could never have imagined. However, Iran’s ability to exert its influence in four Arab nations should be assessed in relation to the relative decline of Arab state power, not innate Iranian strength. Yet following the Iranian nuclear deal, the rise of Iranian power will continue in the foreseeable future. At least $100 billion in frozen assets will flow into Tehran’s coffers, and while much of that money will be injected into Iran’s cash-strapped economy, it can be expected that some will go to support Iran’s interests in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.