Why Iran Celebrates Its Own Revolution by Waving Egyptian Flags

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L to R: Tara Todras-Whitehill / Getty Images; ALI AL-SAADI / AFP / Getty Images

L to R: Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman; Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa

On the same day that the streets of Cairo and Alexandria erupted in ecstatic celebration of the success of a people-power revolution in driving President Hosni Mubarak from power, Iranians were also in their country's streets — celebrating the 32nd anniversary of their own revolution, in typical resistance-chic style. Huge crowds gathered in Freedom Square on Feb. 11 despite snow and rain, carrying flowers and posters of the Supreme Leader Ayatullah Khamenei, "Down with Israel" placards and the tricolor red, white and green flags of the Islamic Republic. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived by helicopter to a rock-star greeting from the faithful young men who surged against police barricades, shouting, "Ahmadinejad is our life! Ahmadinejad is our President!" while marching bands struck up revolutionary anthems. This year, everyone knew that Iran's government has more to celebrate than usual.

The Egyptian uprising has brought down one of the U.S.'s key allies in its Middle East cold war with Iran. That's why soldiers in Tehran handed out Egyptian flags to the crowd and many anti-Mubarak slogans and cartoons were on display — including one of protesters pulling down a statue of Mubarak much in the same way that American tanks had taken down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003. "The sword will bring you down from your palaces of oppression with the help of God," Ahmadinejad told the crowd. "Very soon, the new Middle East will have no Israel and no America. The new Middle East will have no superpowers."

Along with the strategic value of seeing an American-backed dictatorship fall, Tehran has sensed an ideological opportunity. The revolutionaries who created the Islamic Republic in 1979 saw themselves as beginning a world revolution of oppressed people under the banner of Islam. Now the Iranian government is claiming that the Egyptian uprising is the first Islamic revolution since 1979 and is giving Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood credit for starting it — claims strenuously repudiated by the Egyptian group.

Still, the Egyptian uprising presents a potential problem for the Iranian government. Opposition protesters from the Green Movement that had led protests against the disputed presidential elections in 2009 have petitioned the government to allow demonstrations on Monday, Feb. 14 — Valentine's Day — in support of the prodemocracy movement in Egypt. Iranian opposition leaders, who say the TV images from Tahrir Square mirror their own clashes with authorities in Tehran, hope that the government's support for the Egyptian uprising will force it to allow Monday's demonstrations.

Whatever happens on Monday, there's little chance of events in Egypt reigniting Iran's Green Movement protests. The Tehran government has demonstrated the will and ability to shut down street protests, and the Green Movement is unlikely to inspire turnout similar to those of 2009. Moreover, the Ahmadinejad government seems ever more secure in its position, having outmaneuvered conservative critics in parliament and the Foreign Ministry. But the Iranian government appears to recognize the need to address some of the economic grievances facing young people in both Egypt and Iran. In his speech on Friday, Ahmadinejad expounded at length on Iran's scientific advancements, promising to both continue its nuclear program for civilian purposes and put an Iranian in space within the next decade. He also promised to end youth unemployment by 2013. "Once Iran was known only for pistachios and handicrafts," he said. "Now we are known for nanotechnology."