Syrian turmoil may splinter Iran's radical axis

Iran seems to be everywhere nowadays, wherever you look in the Middle East. Reports abound of Iranian submarines collecting intelligence in the Red Sea and warships foraying into the Mediterranean, agents of the Revolutionary Guards advising the Syrians how best to put down the rebellion in border towns, and diplomats from Tehran in secret meetings in Cairo. The Islamist regime is making a bid for regional dominance - but not everything is going its way.

The formation of a Hizbollah-dominated coalition government in Lebanon this week headed by pro-Syrian Najib Miakti, after five months of a political vacuum in the Land of the Cedars, would normally have been a further affirmation of Iran's hold on the "radical axis", spanning Iran, Syria and Lebanon. But the central link in the chain seems increasingly shaky.

Until last weekend, President Bashar al-Assad seemed to be keeping control of his country, despite widening protests in many of Syria's cities. But the developments of the last week, the bloody repression of the revolt in Jisr a-Shughour and the resulting exodus of refugees to neighbouring Turkey, were the first major escalation of the Syrian revolution and the opening for another regional power to become involved.

Fresh from his election victory on Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan now has an opportunity to re-establish Turkish influence in Syria, lost with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War.

Hariri will benefit if Iran loses Syria

The "Turkish model" of an Islamic democracy has already been mentioned as a possible blueprint for the newly emerging Arab democracies. It certainly poses a challenge to the Islamic republics Iran would like to see.

If Iran loses its ally in Syria, it will find it increasingly difficult to support Hizbollah in Lebanon. This will embolden the pro-reform Hariri camp in Beirut, currently ostracised from the government.

Tehran rejoiced four months ago at the fall of Hosni Mubarak, its most powerful rival within the Islamic sphere, and the interim Egyptian government initially announced plans to renew diplomatic ties. These talks though seem to have stalled for now, due mainly to American pressure, strengthened by President Obama's recent announcement of $2 billion of economic aid.

Instability in Syria is seen as a potential threat to Israel, despite its historical enmity with the house of Assad. The potential for a chaotic spillover if the Ba'ath government falls is great, and the two recent attempts by Palestinian refugees to cross the Syrian border into Israel were certainly an ominous sign that the Golan border, quiet for the last 37 years, may turn into another security headache.

A new regime in Egypt is also a major source of concern, after Mubarak ensured three decades of peace from the southern border. Another partner in peace, Jordan, is also looking increasingly shaky, whether or not reports of an attack on King Abdullah's motorcade on Monday are true.

But predictions of a new encirclement by hostile, Iranian-backed powers, is still very premature.

Tehran still faces rivals in Ankara, Cairo and also Riad, where the Saudis are enraged over the support Iran is giving Shia protesters in neighbouring Bahrain. And things are still far from calm at home. Despite bloody reprisals, thousands of protesters still gathered this week in Tehran to commemorate the fraudulent 2009 presidential elections. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is currently embroiled in a struggle over constitutional powers, both with Supreme Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Hamenei and major factions within parliament. Throw away that crystal ball.

Last updated: 1:14pm, June 16 2011