WASHINGTON -- This year's State of the Union address has been parsed, analyzed, applauded (80 times), celebrated and derided. The rhetoric has been described as "visionary" and "myopic." The president's promises and pledges have been depicted as "important" and "hollow." None of that really matters in the near term. What's most important right now is how the Obama administration handles the increasingly intense cries for greater freedom sweeping from Tunisia to Yemen -- threatening every authoritarian Muslim regime in that region save one: Iran's.
The theocrats in Tehran didn't foment the "Jasmine Revolution" -- the youth-driven popular uprising that forced Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the presidential palace he occupied for 23 years. The unrest that drove Ben Ali into comfortable exile in a Saudi palace began as a protest against government corruption, high unemployment and a spike in the price of basic foodstuffs. But the ayatollahs are capitalizing on the expanding chaos.
Expatriate Iranian opposition figures claim that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds force have been dispatched to Tunis "to help guide developments." And Tehran's government-controlled Fars News Agency has since quoted Jamil bin Alawi, a Tunisian "student activist," as saying, "The advanced revolutionary and Islamic models like the Hezbollah of Lebanon can provide a bright and promising prospect for Tunisia."
"Hezbollah" -- Arabic for "Party of God" -- is a word often in the news of late. The paramilitary/political/civic aid movement -- covertly originated, funded and directed by Iran since 1982 as a means of spreading a Shiite vision of Islamic revolution -- originally was confined to Lebanon. In 2006, well-armed Hezbollah militants, backed by Iran and supported by Syria, fought the Israeli army to a standstill. Rearmed and supplied by Iran, Hezbollah still controls south Lebanon to the Israeli border.
Two weeks ago, while Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was in Washington for a meeting with Obama, Hezbollah brought down the Beirut government. This week, despite violent protests in Beirut and Tripoli, Hezbollah became an official part of the Lebanese government when Najib Mikati, its hand-picked candidate for prime minister, began forming a new government. The immediate effect was aptly described by an Al-Jazeera headline: "Lebanon convulses on 'Day of Rage.'" The protests continue.
The Iranians overtly have established "Hezbollah offices" in Syria, Sudan and Tunisia. Claims have been made in Web postings by Iranian officials that the organization also has a "presence" in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen and Bahrain. Three weeks ago, when Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric and head of the anti-American "Mahdi Army," returned briefly to Iraq, he was greeted by supporters who proclaimed themselves to be members of "Hezbollah of Iraq."
During his SOTU address, Obama pledged, "This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq." Hezbollah of Iraq was apparently unmoved by this oft-reiterated commitment, insisting its goals remain "resistance and jihad to occupying countries" and warning "all U.S. citizens and foreign military personnel to leave Iraq immediately." Meanwhile al-Sadr has returned to his Iranian protectors, who persist in dispatching arms and insurgents to kill Americans.
In Egypt -- where riot police and the army are confronting angry protesters with tear gas, batons and gunfire -- the Iranians may well see another autocratic regime ripe for Islamic revolution. Student-led riots opposing the 30-year reign of President-for-Life Hosni Mubarak erupted Monday in Cairo and quickly spread throughout the country.
Unlike their counterparts in Tunisia and Lebanon, the Egyptian police and army thus far appear loyal to their leader, Mubarak, and the government has all but shut down press access and communications, including many Internet links. Current and former U.S. officials familiar with the situation in Egypt counsel, "Don't count Mubarak out. He's a survivor." But even the 82-year-old Mubarak must recall how his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, "left office" in 1981. It was during bloody carnage perpetrated by Muslim Brotherhood members in a military parade. Meanwhile U.S. vessels in the western Mediterranean have quietly delayed planned visits to Egyptian ports, and NATO officers in Naples, Italy, are dusting off plans for "noncombatant evacuation operations" -- just in case.
None of this, particularly what we know of Tehran's nefarious role in the region and nimble ability to exploit a crisis, bodes well for U.S. interests. Though Obama often claims -- as he did in his SOTU address -- the U.S. "supports the democratic aspirations of all people," his words ring hollow when contrasted with what he has done or is prepared to do. The Iranian regime, which brutally suppressed democratic aspirations of its own people in 2009, still provides a classic example of what happens when Utopian rhetoric confronts hard reality.
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