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It is difficult to see how the Syrian regime can be overthrown without outside intervention, given that internal opposition groups are divided and disorganized. Military intervention, which would have to be led by the U.S., does not appear likely. The campaign in Libya took seven months, and Libya's defenses were not nearly as robust as Syria's. And unlike Libya, Syria is not a significant oil producer. The emergence of fractures within President Bashar Assad's clan cannot be ruled out, and Assad could be coerced into making a political exit. But Iran's goal for Syria is overall regime preservation, regardless of the political personality in power in Damascus.
The Saudi royals face the rise of Iran and uncertainty about the U.S.'s ability and willingness to guarantee their interests. Unrest in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite-dominated and oil-rich Eastern province are warnings of Iran's ability to exploit instability. With increased Iranian influence along their northern border, the Saudis will face an extraordinarily difficult decision in 2012: maintain faith in their dependence on the U.S. for their national security or reach a painful accommodation with Iran. We expect the Saudis will choose the U.S., given the limits on Iranian power, but the Saudis will need demonstrations of U.S. will and ability to play a dominant security role in the Persian Gulf.
Iraq will not become an Iranian satellite, but Tehran will be able to exert tremendous influence to secure its western flank. Iraq--particularly northern Iraq--will become a more visible arena for Iranian-Turkish competition, since Mesopotamia is the primary place for Turkey to work on limiting the spread of Iranian influence. The vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal will lead to a general deterioration in security conditions in Iraq as sectarian fault lines again come to the fore.
This will be a decisive year for Iran. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq leaves Iran the pre-eminent military power in the Persian Gulf. Knowing this window of opportunity will not remain open long, Iran will try to consolidate and extend its new regional influence. As long as Iran is able to keep its allies in Syria in power and thus make them even more dependent on Tehran for survival, Iranian influence will stretch from Afghanistan to Lebanon. Even without that foothold in the Levant, Shi'ite-led Iran is in a position to intimidate Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and its neighbors. Iran is still operating under considerable constraints, however, and will prove unable to fundamentally reshape the politics of the region in its favor.
Bahrain will remain under heavy Saudi influence and continue to host a significant Gulf Cooperation Council security presence. It exemplifies the Persian Gulf dynamic: Iran can create problems that the Saudis must respond to, but Iran cannot create more problems than the Saudis can manage. Iran, whose support for the mostly Shi'ite uprising in 2011 caused tension between Iran and Bahrain, is content with Bahrain's being a long-term problem for the Saudis.