Behind the Spin, Egypt Gives Tehran Political Heartburn

Judging from official propaganda in both Iran and much of the Arab world, the uprisings that toppled Tunisia’s dictatorship and threaten Egypt’s authoritarian regime are the direct descendent of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

For the Iranians, that analysis is a boast; for the Arabs, it is a dire warning. 

In both cases, state-run media assert that the collapse of pro-Western Arab regimes will benefit the Islamic Republic of Iran and lead to expansion of an "arc of resistance" against U.S. and Israeli interests in the region. 

Certainly, there is a kernel of truth in the propaganda. Just at the point when Iran was feeling the pressure of international sanctions over its nuclear program, along come cataclysmic events that draw attention from Iran and threaten to pull down the pillars of a Middle East geopolitical order that has endured for 30-plus years. 

Iran portrays the travails of U.S.-backed Arab rulers as a zero-sum game in which Washington’s loss is an undiluted victory for Tehran. It links these developments to the rise of Shiite-dominated governments in Iraq and Lebanon. 

However, the image exaggerates Iranian power and omits the ways in which regional trends could threaten Iranian influence and re-ignite its own domestic opposition. 

"The [Iranian] government today is very ambivalent about what is happening in Egypt," says Shireen Hunter, a Middle East scholar at Georgetown University and author of a recent book, Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era

"They realize this was not a movement started by Muslim activists but a much broader voicing of frustrations and grievances. If the space opens up, a lot of jockeying will take place. Who will reap the benefits is not clear," she says. 

Contrary to the Iranian narrative, the most charismatic figure to emerge from the Egyptian intifada so far is not a cleric but a slight, 30-year-old Google executive, Wael Ghonim. His emotional interview on an independent Egyptian satellite channel Monday discussing the deaths of protestors while he was detained by Egyptian authorities motivated an untold number of Egyptians to join the protests in Tahrir Square. 

Developments outside Egypt are also hard to read as undiluted Iranian victories. 

In Iraq, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr quietly returned to Najaf after three years in Iran Jan. 5 but left after only 15 days, reportedly the object of death threats from another Iranian-linked group. Iran remains the most influential foreign player in Iraq, with deep links to agents in a number of Shiite parties and militias, but is also resented by Iraqis – including Iraqi Shiites – for heavy-handed tactics and sweetheart deals that dump inferior Iranian goods in Iraq. 

Iran’s close ties to the Afghan government and to the Shiite population there have been jeopardized by a six-week slowdown in fuel deliveries. Hunter says the cutbacks – which led to anti-Iran demonstrations in Kabul and Heart – were meant to send a message that Iran should not be taken for granted. However, the result has been to sour Iran-Afghan ties. 

In Lebanon, all parties are anxiously awaiting the announcement of indictments in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. It is likely that a U.N. Special Tribunal will accuse members of Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, with negative consequences for its image – and that of Iran – among Shiite as well as Sunni Arabs. 

Domestically, too, the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt could give Tehran political heartburn. The Green Movement, which has seemed near death for the past year as a result of a vicious government crackdown, has embraced the Arab uprisings as an another example of the people power that swept Iran after disputed 2009 presidential elections. 

Green Movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Musavi have asked for a permit to demonstrate in Tehran’s Freedom Square on Feb. 14 "in solidarity" with the Tunisian and Egyptian pro-democracy activists. 

If the government agrees, it risks reviving the Green Movement. If it refuses, it exposes itself to charges of hypocrisy. 

"If they are not going to allow their own people to protest, it goes against everything they are saying and all they are doing to welcome the protests in Egypt is fake," Karroubi told the New York Times in an interview by computer video hookup Tuesday from his home in Tehran where he said he has been essentially under house arrest. 

A report by the Iranian Labor News Agency on Wednesday said the Iranian judiciary had denied permission for the Feb. 14 rally, saying those who support the Egyptians and Tunisians should march on Friday. While it praises Arab protesters, the Iranian government has exploited the media preoccupation with Tunisia and Egypt by executing more than 80 people last month, including a dual Iranian-Dutch citizen, Zahra Bahrami. 

Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, says the Iranian government hopes such harsh actions will intimidate Iranian democracy advocates and keep them off the streets on Friday, the 32nd anniversary of the triumph of the Iranian Revolution, as well as Monday. 

Given the historic rivalry between Persians and Arabs – and the stereotype that Egyptians are politically passive while Iranians are not – Ghaemi said some Iranians may be motivated to turn out just to show that they are not inferior to Arabs in courage and conviction. 

"The average Iranian is going to wonder, ‘if Egyptians can do it, why can’t we?’" Ghaemi said. 

(Inter Press Service)