Nervous Tehran Sees Benefit — Maybe

  • Share
  • Read Later
MOHAMMED ABED / AFP / Getty Images

Tahrir Square in Cairo, January 30, 2011

Iran is the only country in the Middle East to have no diplomatic ties with Egypt. Nevertheless, the protests rocking the region's most populous nation could carry monumental implications for Tehran. Iran's Islamic government is eyeing developments in Egypt warily, projecting a spin on events in Cairo that only underscores Tehran's anxiety.

"An Islamic Middle East is being created, based on Islam, religion, and religious democracy," declared Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami at Tehran's Friday prayers, celebrating Egypt's popular uprising by claiming it for the Islamist cause. Iran's conservatives have echoed this line since protests in Egypt gathered momentum last week, likening the mass protests to Iran's own 1979 Islamic revolution. "The time has come to overcome puppet autocratic regimes by relying on the Islamic teachings," Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran's parliament, said on Sunday.

News websites affiliated with Iran's conservative factions have carried jubilant headlines about the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's "Zionist regime." Pages of reader comments celebrate the perceived blow this delivers to American interests in the region, reflecting how quickly Iran's government managed to shape and package its "message" about Egypt's unrest.

Iran confronted its own mass uprising in 2009 in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contested election victory, but the state deployed brutal force to crush those protests, known as the Green movement. "Iran is celebrating popular behavior in Egypt that it continues to identify as 'seditious' in Iran," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert. "The only way it can partially cover this basic contradiction is by spinning the Egyptian mobilization against dictatorship as the rise of Islamism ignited by the ideal of Iran's 1979 revolution."

Tehran's rush to brand the Egyptian revolt as Islamic reflects two concerns. The first is Iran's wish to retain its at least superficial popularity in the Arab world, where for years Arabs frustrated with their inept and authoritarian leaders have channeled their fury through a cheery affection for Ahmadinejad. Despite the limits of this regard — most Arabs enjoy Ahmadinejad's defiance of the West but would not elect to live under his rule — Tehran views its popularity amongst Arabs as an important sign of its ascendancy over its neighbors. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, puts it: "The Islamic Republic has long seen itself as the vanguard of the Middle East and an inspiration to Arabs everywhere." But if the region's hated Arab dictators fall, so collapses the social and political dynamic that has produced Ahmadinejad's pop star status.

Iran's government also frets that Iranians will take inspiration from an uprising that has shaken an entrenched order far more successfully than Iran's own Green movement managed in 2009. The worry clearly centers on what Iranians inside the country will think and hear about Egypt's unrest — state media carefully describes the revolt in Islamic terms on its Farsi-language outlets, but Iran's English and Arabic-language networks, broadcasting to a non-Iranian audience who would find that language bizarre, make no such claims.

While Egypt's chances of transitioning to representative democracy remain an open question, especially with events on the ground so fluid, even the prospect remains deeply unsettling to Iran. "The focus would no longer be on Arabs being inspired by Iranian fundamentalism, but Iranians being inspired by Arab democracy," says Sadjadpour.

The leader of Iran's opposition movement, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, challenged the Iranian government's spin on Saturday in a statement supporting Egypt's uprising. "The starting point of what we are now witnessing [can be undoubtedly traced back to June 2009] when people took to the streets of Tehran in millions shouting 'Where is my vote?' and peacefully demanded their denied rights," he said. "Today, the slogan of 'Where is my vote?' of the people of Iran has reached Egypt and transformed into 'The people want the overthrow of the regime.'"

Despite Iran's anxiety over a popular uprising that looks poised to achieve regime change, the strategic impact of Mubarak's fall may also prove a boon to Tehran. Whatever its failures in securing political rights and economic opportunity for Egyptians, the Mubarak tenure in Egypt has been pillar for American interests in the Middle East. The disruption of Egypt's relationship with the United States could shift the region's balance in a number of ways. "It is not unreasonable to assume that Iran is both hoping and expecting to benefit from this shift," says Farhi.

Even in the short-term, some analysts raised the possibility that Iran might seek to advance its interests during Egypt's transition. "If there is a vacuum of power and leadership in Egypt, Iran is not going to stay on the sidelines and watch," says Sadjadpour. "It will try to exploit the situation by funding its like-minded cohorts. Iran has used this playbook in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon."

Sadjadpour says Iran has already made inroads with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt through its close ties with Hamas. Though the Muslim Brotherhood's relationship to Egypt's nascent opposition is yet fluid, it is likely the only front through which Tehran might plausibly seek to project influence. Iran's ability to shape events in places like Iraq and Lebanon has been largely due to its relationship with Shi'a majorities in those countries. Egypt, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, would afford no such opportunity. "Most Egyptians have never met a Shi'a or an Iranian and have no knowledge of or respect for either," says Gary Sick, a professor of Middle East studies at Columbia University who has served in several U.S. administrations. "Even if Iran should be interested in affecting the outcome, and it would likely love to, it simply doesn't have the ability to influence events in Egypt."

Ultimately, the factor that could most impact Iran is the same as what every other country in the Middle East and world is considering: whether a successor regime to Mubarak honors the peace commitments to Israel that Egypt has observed for decades. "If a successor regime rejects all those tasks and commitments," says Sick, "that effectively puts us back to pre-1978. That is why the stakes are extremely high."