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Tehran Looks on Calmly as Arabs Protest

By Ali Reza Eshraghi -- Source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)

Populist action and calls for grassroots democracy across Middle East viewed as opportunity, not threat.

People protest against Mubarak and Obama in Tehran during Friday Prayers - March 2, 2011

While the United States looks on at unrest in Egypt and other Middle Eastern states with concern, the mood among officials in Tehran is one of undisguised satisfaction. For Iran, whatever kind of change emerges from the protest has to be better than the status quo.

As protests mount in Egypt, Tunisians build a new government, and the king of Jordan sacks his cabinet after demonstrations, Iranian official statements have backed the crowds seeking change, not their leaders.

General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, expressed delight at developments, saying, "Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, and now it is the heart of political and social change and of revolution in the Arab world."

The Fars news agency urged the Egyptian authorities "not to allow military or security forces to resort to violence in dealing with this popular wave". This is somewhat ironic, given the news agency's close links to the same Revolutionary Guards Corps that played a key role in cracking down on popular protests following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election in 2009.

Both the government and the opposition in Iran have welcomed the wave of protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Jordan. Each believes that it is the inspiration for the grassroots movement.

The regime's propaganda machine has portrayed the popular uprisings as evidence of the influence of its own 1979 Islamic revolution. Meanwhile, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi takes the view that the protests are modeled on the Green Movement demonstrations of 2009.

Despite their troubled relations with Iran, Middle Eastern leaders seem to prefer Ahmadinejad to the alternatives. Ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidin Ben Ali, for example, was among the first to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his 2009 re-election.

The opposition candidate, Mousavi, had made it clear he would seek to elevate Iran's influence in the region, and regional leaders will have been aware that a foreign policy led by him would have enjoyed greater legitimacy. According to a cable released by WikiLeaks, Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan described Mousavi as more dangerous than Ahmadinejad because the latter was at least "an open book".

If the prospect of reform and democracy in Iran are viewed with suspicion by Arab leaders, the reverse is not true. The regime may not countenance dissent at home, but it is unworried about the consequences of ground-up democratic change in Arab states.

First, almost any kind of regime change is likely to produce leaderships that are less hostile to Iran than the current ones. Second, this will offer new avenues for Iran to build influence in those countries.

In an environment in which Middle Eastern governments have enjoy US backing over many years, Iran has presented itself as champion of the oppressed majority.

Iran has fewer problems with regional states that have a semblance of democracy than with those that do not. Islamists rose to power via elections in Turkey, and relations have never been better. In Iraq, after 50 years of tensions and a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s, Tehran now has friends in high places in the shape of an elected president and prime minister.

In Tunisia, Islamist groups that were suppressed under President Ben Ali are now emerging as political forces, with the once outlawed Ennahdha party under Rachid Ghanouchi preparing for elections.

Even when pro-Iran groups are not dominant, they have the power to shape the political process and block it when it presents a risk to Tehran's interests. Months of wrangling over the new prime minister in Iraq ended last autumn with Iran's favoured candidate, the incumbent Nuri al-Maliki, emerging on top.

The recent fall of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's government in Lebanon was caused when Hezbollah - an Iranian ally - withdrew its backing in parliament. In Afghanistan, Iran has navigated its way through the turbulent politics to establish a relationship with President Hamed Karzai, despite his western backing.

Quasi-democratic states are less prone to creating threats to Iran than those ruled by unelected autocrats. WikiLeaks cables reveal that Saudi King Abdullah and senior officials in other countries like Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, UAE, and Jordan urged the US to attack Iran.

By contrast, opinion surveys show that the average citizen of Arab states - the kind of people taking part in the current protest - are not hostile to Iran. A poll conducted by the Washington-based Brookings Institute in 2010 showed that just ten per cent of respondents in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the UAE viewed Iran as a threat, compared with 88 per cent holding the same view of Israel and 77 per cent the US.

Thus, if these people were given greater participation through free elections, they would be unlikely - at least in the short term - to back policies hostile to Tehran. In addition, democracy in Bahrain could hand power to the Shia majority there, and even in Saudi Arabia, the Shia minority located in the east beside the Persian Gulf could gain greater autonomy.

The presence of a diversity of political groups in place of monolithic ruling structures would offer Iran more opportunities to make inroads by negotiating and striking deals with various sides.

Contrary to the assertions of Middle Eastern rulers, Iran is realistic enough not to seek to build a new empire, or even to create copycat regimes answerable to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In September 2009, Hassan Firouzabadi, head of the joint chiefs of staff of the Iranian armed forces, officially announced a shift from an ideological to a pragmatic approach to supporting Palestinian and other movements such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. Adopting this new tack, he said, was "a kind of investment in acquiring regional and international leverage", and was also in the best interests of national security, by ensuring that conflict does not take place close to Iran.

Pragmatism includes not investing solely in Islamist groups abroad as instruments of foreign policy.

For three decades, Tehran has sought to establish links with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, but its efforts have been stymied by the Hashemite monarchy, leading to a troubled diplomatic relationship. Last November, the Iranian ambassador was summoned by officials in Amman after he had contacted the Jordanian Engineers' Association, one of the biggest unions in the country, suggesting that officials were worried that Tehran was exploring alternative avenues.

In Lebanon, the head of the Progressive Socialist Party, once a sworn enemy of Hezbollah, is seen as a possible coalition partner, and its head Walid Jumblatt met President Ahmadinejad on the latter's recent trip to the country.

Should President Hosni Mubarak go, Tehran is thus positioned to engage with any new government that emerges. Given the choice, Washington would clearly prefer the secular Mohamed ElBaradei to take the reins, not the Muslim Brotherhood. But it would make little difference to Iran.

Elbaradei is viewed with particular sympathy in Tehran since, as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he held out against US pressure to accuse Iran of shifting its nuclear programme to weapons production.

Mubarak's departure would almost certainly be followed by the reopening of the Iranian embassy - absent from Cairo for almost 32 years - and could draw a line under the enmity between the two countries that has persisted for over five decades.

It is no exaggeration to say that Iran's position in the Middle East has never been better in centuries, as US-backed state leaders land in trouble one after another.

"The new Middle East is taking shape," wrote Hossein Shariatmadari, who is the editor-in-chief of the hardline daily Kayhan and is close to Supreme Leader Khamenei. "Contrary to [ex-US president George] Bush's wishes, it is being formed with Iran at the centre."

About the author: Ali Reza Eshraghi is the editor of the Iran Programme at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR).

... Payvand News - 02/04/11 ... --

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