Convinced that the Obama administration is preparing to retreat from the Middle East, Iran's Khomeinist regime is intensifying its goal of regional domination. It has targeted six close allies of the U.S.: Egypt, Lebanon, Bahrain, Morocco, Kuwait and Jordan, all of which are experiencing economic and/or political crises.
Iranian strategists believe that Egypt is heading for a major crisis once President Hosni Mubarak, 81, departs from the political scene. He has failed to impose his eldest son Gamal as successor, while the military-security establishment, which traditionally chooses the president, is divided. Iran's official Islamic News Agency has been conducting a campaign on that theme for months. This has triggered a counter-campaign against Iran by the Egyptian media.
Last month, Egypt announced it had crushed a major Iranian plot and arrested 68 people. According to Egyptian media, four are members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Tehran's principal vehicle for exporting its revolution.
Seven were Palestinians linked to the radical Islamist movement Hamas; one was a Lebanese identified as "a political agent from Hezbollah" by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah, claimed these men were shipping arms to Hamas in Gaza.
The arrests reportedly took place last December, during a crackdown against groups trying to convert Egyptians to Shiism. The Egyptian Interior Ministry claims this proselytizing has been going on for years. Thirty years ago, Egyptian Shiites numbered a few hundred. Various estimates put the number now at close to a million, but they are said to practice taqiyah (dissimulation), to hide their new faith.
But in its campaign for regional hegemony, Tehran expects Lebanon as its first prize. Iran is spending massive amounts of cash on June's general election. It supports a coalition led by Hezbollah, and including the Christian ex-general Michel Aoun. Lebanon, now in the column of pro-U.S. countries, would shift to the pro-Iran column.
In Bahrain, Tehran hopes to see its allies sweep to power through mass demonstrations and terrorist operations. Bahrain's ruling clan has arrested scores of pro-Iran militants but appears more vulnerable than ever. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has contacted Arab heads of states to appeal for "urgent support in the face of naked threats," according to the Bahraini media.
The threats became sensationally public in March. In a speech at Masshad, Iran's principal "holy city," Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, a senior aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described Bahrain as "part of Iran." Morocco used the ensuing uproar as an excuse to severe diplomatic relations with Tehran. The rupture came after months of tension during which Moroccan security dismantled a network of pro-Iran militants allegedly plotting violent operations.
Iran-controlled groups have also been uncovered in Kuwait and Jordan. According to Kuwaiti media, more than 1,000 alleged Iranian agents were arrested and shipped back home last winter. According to the Tehran media, Kuwait is believed vulnerable because of chronic parliamentary disputes that have led to governmental paralysis.
As for Jordan, Iranian strategists believe the kingdom, where Palestinians are two-thirds of the population, is a colonial creation and should disappear from the map -- opening the way for a single state covering the whole of Palestine. Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have both described the division of Palestine as "a crime and a tragedy."
Arab states are especially concerned because Tehran has succeeded in transcending sectarian and ideological divides to create a coalition that includes Sunni movements such as Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, sections of the Muslim Brotherhood, and even Marxist-Leninist and other leftist outfits that share Iran's anti-Americanism.
Information published by Egyptian and other Arab intelligence services, and reported in the Egyptian and other Arab media, reveal a sophisticated Iranian strategy operating at various levels. The outer circle consists of a number of commercial companies, banks and businesses active in various fields and employing thousands of locals in each targeted country. In Egypt, for example, police have uncovered more than 30 such Iranian "front" companies, according to the pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq Alawsat. In Syria and Lebanon, the numbers reportedly run into hundreds.
In the next circle, Iranian-financed charities offer a range of social and medical services and scholarships that governments often fail to provide. Another circle consists of "cultural" centers often called Ahl e Beit (People of the House) supervised by the offices of the supreme leader. These centers offer language classes in Persian, English and Arabic, Islamic theology, Koranic commentaries, and traditional philosophy -- alongside courses in information technology, media studies, photography and filmmaking.
Wherever possible, the fourth circle is represented by branches of Hezbollah operating openly. Where that's not possible, clandestine organizations do the job, either alone or in conjunction with Sunni radical groups.
The Khomeinist public diplomacy network includes a half-dozen satellite television and radio networks in several languages, more than 100 newspapers and magazines, a dozen publishing houses, and thousands of Web sites and blogs controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The network controls thousands of mosques throughout the region where preachers from Iran, or trained by Iranians, disseminate the Khomeinist revolutionary message.
Tehran has also created a vast network of non-Shiite fellow travelers within the region's political and cultural elites. These politicians and intellectuals may be hostile to Khomeinism on ideological grounds -- but they regard it as a powerful ally in a common struggle against the American "Great Satan."
Khomeinist propaganda is trying to portray Iran as a rising "superpower" in the making while the United States is presented as the "sunset" power. The message is simple: The Americans are going, and we are coming.
Tehran plays a patient game. Wherever possible, it is determined to pursue its goals through open political means, including elections. With pro-American and other democratic groups disheartened by the perceived weakness of the Obama administration, Tehran hopes its allies will win all the elections planned for this year in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
"There is this perception that the new U.S. administration is not interested in the democratization strategy," a senior Lebanese political leader told me. That perception only grows as President Obama calls for an "exit strategy" from Afghanistan and Iraq. Power abhors a vacuum, which the Islamic Republic of Iran is only too happy to fill.