Edition 24 Volume 7 - June 25, 2009
The events in Iran: Arab reactions
The dilemma of Arab nationalists -
Iran's problem is everyone's problem in so many ways.
Amman maintains calculated stance
Jordanian officials, politicians and security analysts agree that Iran's election has exposed deep divisions within Iran, which they welcome.
Regional political effects, inspiration to opposition forces -
The Iranian riots must have grabbed the attention of active opposition forces in Syria, Egypt and Bahrain.
Iran is in crisis; so is the Middle East -
Gamal A. G. Soltan
Escalation on the Lebanon and/or Gaza front is likely.
The dilemma of Arab nationalists
While the entire word is gripped with the political turmoil in Iran, its closest neighbors have been collectively pretending not to notice there really is a problem at all. At first unable to contain their enthusiasm with the opposition to a regime they've collectively hated for 30 years, various official media outlets have mellowed their tone and practically reverted to the "domestic Iranian matter" line.
And yet Iran's problem is everyone's problem in so many ways. Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in a revolution that swept the Shah from power, most Arab countries have at best been uneasy neighbors to Iran, and at worst aggressors. The Iranians had barely begun to come to terms with the fact of having dismissed the Shah when the proxy wars against them began in earnest.
Fighting the dirty war of the bloc of superpowers arming him, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and bled both countries dry for eight years, especially once the full impact of the US's dual containment policy was felt. No wonder the Iranians didn't warm to their neighborhood. Apart from Syria, which particularly enjoyed the fall of one of Israel's greatest allies and was united with Iran in a common hatred of Saddam Hussein, Arab countries were predominantly hostile.
Arab wariness stemmed less from the fact of the Iranian revolution than the banner under which it was fought. That the powerful, well-armed and internationally supported Shah could fall so easily was one thing: that the revolutionaries did it in the name of Islam was another. For the first time in centuries, two rival blocs faced off to claim leadership of a huge global Muslim community. Both also sat on large oil resources that helped finance their new activism, supporting numerous groups with political and religious agendas. These confronting alignments have now endured for decades, creating a complex set of relations, that it is crucial to understand as an introduction to the way forward, when some Arabs are now more pro-Iranian regime than before, in direct opposition to the critics siding with the "moderate" group.
The mutual animosity between the competing Iranian and Arab regimes, seeping through their respective media outlets, has been evident for years, especially since the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, the animosity has filtered down to the popular level, fuelled by inflammatory rhetoric (mostly from the anti-Iranian side) and turning anti-Iranian positions into anti-Shi'ite ones, exacerbated by Iraq and Lebanon and the ongoing Arab-Israel conflict or, more correctly, the Palestinian cause.
There is no doubt that Israel plays a role in this divide, being in fact the lowest common denominator. With the Iranian regime (alongside Syria) openly supporting the so-called radical elements of the Palestinian resistance, and with Saudi Arabia having sided with the so-called moderate Palestinian Authority, Arabs actively opposing Israel have made their choice. The situation is even more pronounced in Lebanon, where the resistance to Israel is the sole domain of Hizballah, a militant group whose umbilical tie to Iran seems to trump most other considerations.
Today, tens of thousands of Iranians are protesting against their regime, officially because of a dubious election which even authorities admit had irregularities, and unofficially because many of them are vying for a relaxation of the strict rules that govern their lives. Importantly, many have expressed their specific distaste for Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's needlessly confrontational stances, his foreign policy and his absurd habit of putting into doubt the history of the Holocaust--all of which has only made their isolation more pronounced.
For many Iranians, popular Arab support for Ahmadinezhad remains unpalatable and unforgivable. It makes little sense to them that people who support freedom and self-determination for one people (the Palestinians, for instance) would also support a leader whose domestic rule has been controversial to say the least. Increasingly, young Iranians are expressing anti-Arab sentiments based mostly on their regime's support of Hizballah (and to a lesser extent Hamas).
Arab nationalists, and Arab liberals to a certain extent, have a serious problem. With the noble causes they espouse, they should technically be equally critical of such regimes. And yet, because of the Iranian regime's staunch support for Palestinian groups and for the Palestinian cause in general, many Arabs have spared Ahmadinezhad and his regime from the stinging reproaches they extend to other rulers.
Is the enemy of our enemy necessarily our friend, regardless of other factors? Have we become so desperate for support for the Palestinian cause that we would become bedfellows with the least savory of characters? This is not the first time this would have happened. Saddam Hussein, the tyrant who oppressed his own people for decades, acted so magnanimously with Palestinians that Yasser Arafat chose to side with Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, with disastrous consequences for Palestinians. Likewise, the farcical Muammar Qadhafi remained a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause while his own people suffered. Many critics of Arab regimes also fall silent on Syria, precisely because of its vocal support for the various militant groups.
Arab nationalists have often explained themselves on this thorny issue, arguing that the choice of allies was dictated by the magnitude of the Palestinian problem and all the issues still touching on Israel. Unfortunately, this position has created huge resentment from the people ruled by the likes of Saddam Hussein, and anti-Palestinian sentiment was common for a long time. Similarly, the antics of Ahmadinezhad have been completely counterproductive, detrimental to the Palestinian cause and resented by many Iranians.
There must come a point when supporters of freedom for Palestinians, under a brutal military occupation and living in much worse conditions than most people, must take the same stand for others, even if the latter live in relatively milder conditions. Until then, we must not be surprised when Iranians, like Iraqis before them, stop caring about fundamental causes, no matter how righteous.- Published 25/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.
Amman maintains calculated stance
Two weeks into Iran's post-election intifada, official Jordan is maintaining a low profile to make sure Amman stands on the right side of history. In a situation so delicate, King Abdullah II, who has long viewed Iran as a main source of instability in the region, prefers to keep Jordan out of the momentous internal Iranian drama that has been unfolding since the June 12 vote.
Taking its cue from the United States, its key western ally, Amman will not acknowledge the results of the heavily contested vote, which brought back hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. But unlike Washington, Amman is also not ready to condemn the heavy security crackdown on pro-reform supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is challenging the election result.
For now, Jordan's calculated position is sparing the government criticism from the influential Islamic-led opposition, which says it backs "Ahmadinezhad's Iran". The opposition feels indebted to him mostly because he backs its Palestinian ally, Hamas, now controlling the Gaza Strip and challenging the legitimacy of the Jordanian-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
Political ties between Amman and Tehran have ebbed and flowed since Jordan sided with Iraq in the 1980-1988 war with Iran. Amman has often accused Tehran of attempts to destabilize the kingdom by supporting militant groups to sabotage Amman's 1994 peace treaty with Israel or inciting hatred against the regime.
Iranian leaders, meanwhile, have not forgiven the king for warning, shortly before the start of the US-led war on Iraq in 2003, that the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-controlled regime would give rise to an Iranian-led "Shi'ite crescent" sphere of influence, stretching from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
Jordanian officials, like representatives of the relatively moderate, pro-western governments in Ramallah, Cairo, Beirut, Riyadh and elsewhere, fear any overtures of support to Mousavi might undermine the very forces they and the US would like to see strengthened. In private, however, they say they would have liked to see him replace Ahmadinezhad, who will have difficulty engaging with President Obama or changing his childish political rhetoric that appeals to the lowest common denominator on the Arab street.
Jordanian media, like many politicians, remain divided over the intentions of Mr. Mousavi, a former prime minister, and the powerful counter-elite behind him. Journalists are asking if it is better to reform the system or overthrow it. Many in Jordan had hoped that a weakened, if not changed, regime led by Mousavi, the "soft" alternative to Ahmadinezhad, would gradually yield an easier approach to Middle East peace, thus softening the positions of Iran's regional strategic allies, Syria, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine and Hizballah in Lebanon. This in turn would have boosted Obama's multi-track approach for comprehensive peace in the region: the creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, closing the Iraq file and attaining a peaceful resolution to Iran's stand-off with the West over its nuclear power.
It remains to be seen if the upheaval will be a turning point for Iran, destabilizing the revolutionary establishment enough in favor of moderation and pluralism to bring long-term stability at home and across the region, and if new, internationally supervised presidential elections would tip the balance in favor of Mousavi. Perhaps the ongoing bloody confrontations between the state security apparatus and pro-democracy protestors will fizzle out after the Guardian Council, the country's top legislative body, said earlier this week there were no signs of serious electoral fraud in the ballot despite conceding that in 50 cities more than 100 per cent of the electorate was officially recorded as turning out to vote.
In the latter case, the leadership that forcefully quelled street unrest after stealing a "rigged" election will continue to push its aggressive domestic and foreign agenda even if it is not recognized by much of the international community, as happened in some East European countries. A weakened regime, however, could become nervous and offensive to cover up for perceived weakness, instigating tension with Israel, which is unhappy with Obama's Middle East peace drive and would not mind derailing it. Such a crisis would force Washington to focus on Iran rather than the Arab-Israel conflict.
For now, Jordanian officials, politicians and security analysts agree that Iran's election has exposed deep divisions within Iran, which they welcome. The regime in Tehran now needs to consolidate its grip on power through compromise and consensus building. Nearly half of the Iranian population will continue to push for reform, including separating politics from religion. This could weaken the popular appeal of hardline Muslim parties challenging the region's despotic rulers, who remain concerned that their constituencies would follow the Iranian example and demand for reforms.
But when it comes to strategic foreign policy, there appears to be consensus between Ahmadinezhad and Mousavi on the need to continue developing Iran's nuclear program to ensure a greater say in a changing regional and global order. The difference between them would not go beyond tactics and tone, at least in the medium term.
"What is happening in Iran is the clearest indication that the revolution is aging, and rather fast because it failed to modernize itself over the past 30 years," said a senior Jordanian politician recently. "There are new dynamics in favor of modernization. But these dynamics are being exaggerated by most western media and the enemies of Ahmadinezhad".
Such exaggeration even touches on what Mousavi could achieve, whether he continues to lead the opposition or is elected under a new vote.
"Mousavi will push for steps to ensure political pluralism and economic reform, but he will not introduce drastic changes to reform the Islamic regime beyond recognition like Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika did to the USSR" in the late 1980s. "He has no choice but to keep building the Iranian empire, which is on the rise, while introducing gradual change," the senior official said.
"He will dismantle neither the Islamic state nor its nuclear program, and he will not reduce Iranian influence in the region by curbing Tehran's role in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. He needs to use all these cards to make Tehran's voice heard in the region and abroad."- Published 25/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rana Sabbagh-Gargour, an independent journalist, is former editor of the Jordan Times.
Regional political effects, inspiration to opposition forces
The Arab world has been closely watching events unfold in Iran with a mixture of shock, interest and some anxiety. Most of the Arab media has directly or indirectly supported public demonstrations by opposition supporters in Iran. The media in general have portrayed the struggle in Iran as one between moderate forces that aspire to cancel the results of the elections, which they claim to be fraudulent, and the hard-line forces led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has endorsed President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad and asked Iranians to accept the results and quit the demonstrations.
For their part, Arab leaders and officials have opted to remain quiet and maintain that this is a domestic Iranian affair. In some cases, the media in the Arab world have adopted the perspective of the host government based on the latter's relations with Ahmadinezhad. Thus, while the Doha-based Al-Jazeera news channel has shown more sympathy toward the regime in Tehran, other media outlets in the Arab Gulf states like the Dubai-based and Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel have tilted toward the opposition camp led by Mir Hossein Mousavi and former presidents Mohammed Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani.
However the conflict ends in Iran, the perceived image of the Islamic Republic has changed in the region. The mere fact that Iran's Supreme Leader is now openly challenged by prominent Iranian figures and a large section of the people has been a shock to many Arabs and an indication that Tehran could be on the verge of a major change of regime or change within the regime. Even if Ahmadinezhad holds onto power as a result of harsh measures taken by the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militias, the legitimacy of the Islamic regime has become questionable and its infallible divine image undermined. Iran's main allies, like Syria, Hizballah and Hamas, are most likely reconsidering the situation and readying themselves for the possibility of a major shift within the Iranian regime or even its collapse.
The high moral ground on which the Supreme Leader is placed by many Shi'ites in the Arab world has also likely been shaken by the recent events. This opens the way for prominent Shi'ite leaders who have disputed the welayat al-faqih theory and feel it has stripped them of their influence domestically. As for countries that were readying themselves to better engage Iran in political discussion, like Washington and its allies, they too will have to consider the new realities unveiled since election day.
Alongside these near-term consequences for Iran and its relations with the world, the Iranian uprising has also left a long-term impact on some states in the region. The Iranian riots must have grabbed the attention of active opposition movements in countries like Syria, Egypt and Bahrain. They have likely learned valuable lessons about the use of cyberspace in organizing and rallying support domestically and internationally. The age of internet-driven revolutions has reached the Middle East and will probably be around effectively for a while.
The most significant factor is the efficient use of new media technologies like the internet, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and cellular functions like SMS and Bluetooth in mobilizing the masses, communicating with the outside world and denying the government the capability to control the flow of information within as well as to and from the country. Although this was not the first time the new media technology was used in public demonstrations in the region, as was the case in recent incidents in Egypt, the Iranian experience has revealed new techniques that regional opposition forces could use in future anti-government actions.
One should expect to see future public rallies in authoritarian countries better covered internationally via these new technologies. Modern information, communication and media technologies have literally stripped remaining dictatorships of their monopoly on the flow of information and could eventually play a major role in their downfall.
Another cause of concern to some Arab observers is the possibility of the Iranian government heightening tensions in the Middle East region in order to divert attention from the domestic scene to the outside. Friction with the West would also serve the current strategy of blaming all the unrest on foreign intervention. The surprise announcement of military maneuvers by Iranian air force and navy units in the Gulf area was mostly seen as a way to shift both domestic and international public attention to the question of regional security. Rising threat perceptions in Tehran regarding the domestic as well as the regional scene could drive the regime to make hasty decisions or miscalculations that could conceivably spark a regional military confrontation.
Authoritarian regimes are most dangerous and adventurous when their survival is threatened and they feel they have little to lose. Hence caution is the word.- Published 25/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Riad Kahwaji is CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis - INEGMA, in Dubai.
Iran is in crisis; so is the Middle East
Gamal A. G. Soltan
For months, major regional and international actors were waiting for the conclusion of Iran's presidential elections. The prevalent feeling was that a new beginning in Middle East politics should follow those elections. US President Barack Obama's overture toward Iran was thought to be effective in bringing about changes in Iranian foreign policy. Even many of those who had doubts about the usefulness of Obama's initiative thought it should at least be tested before being discarded. Thus both believers and skeptics were looking forward to the conclusion of Iran's presidential election campaign so that Obama's Iran and Middle East policy could be assessed.
While interested parties were getting ready to deal with either a radical Iran under the renewed leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad or a moderate Iran under the leadership of one of the reformist candidates, it seems that now we have to deal with an unstable Iran, a scenario that was never seriously contemplated. While attempts to reconcile the Iranian political factions have not yet been abandoned, developments indicate that a break between the two main factions is the likely outcome of the current crisis. Coexistence between conservatives and reformists in Iran's politics is finally coming to an end. The Iranian regime that is likely to take shape in the aftermath of the current crisis will be a narrow-based conservative regime. Reformists are likely to be turned into a permanent opposition in Iranian politics that seeks the transformation rather than the reform of the regime of the Islamic Republic.
The image of the Iranian regime has been badly hurt as a result of the events that have unfolded since the beginning of the electoral campaign. In particular, the ten days that followed election day have deeply undermined Iran's stature and reputation. The portrayal of Iran as the country that was able to reconcile the prolonged conflict between Islam and democracy was among the most effective assets employed by Iranian elites to mobilize support for the Islamic Republic among Muslims all over the world. The current crisis in Iran indicates that the time for a divorce between the Islamic and the republican elements of the Iranian model has arrived.
Electoral fraud and brutal suppression of protesters are undermining Iran's image among Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. The Iranian regime can no longer claim the legitimacy and integrity it professed for decades. Erosion of the legitimacy of Iran's model of Islamic republic will now definitely affect the balance of power between moderates and radicals in the Middle East--and not in favor of the latter.
The balance of power among the Muslim countries of the Middle East is more about soft than hard power. "Balance of legitimacy" might be a more useful term to explain Middle East politics. Undermining the legitimacy of the Iranian regime denies Iran a significant part of the mobilizing force it used to enjoy all over the Middle East. It limits Iran's ability to inspire and manipulate masses in the Middle East and beyond.
Iranian politics is entering a new era characterized by a shattered national consensus, a limited regime support base and full control by extreme religious conservative forces. Dealing with Iran in this new era is like walking uncharted terrain. During the months, maybe years to come, the Iranian ruling elite will be more concerned than ever about self legitimization and regime consolidation. The irony of the current situation is that a shaky Iranian regime could be a destabilizing force in the Middle East. Foreign adventures could be the strategy of Iran's ruling elite to reestablish its grip on power at home. It could be useful in the uncertainty of the current days to revisit the 30 year-old tragedy of the American hostages in Tehran for lessons learned.
Hitherto, the combination of an Islamic Republic at home and a defiant power abroad has proved to be extremely effective in the consolidation of Iran's regional influence. Losing a significant part of legitimacy at home is likely to reorient the attention of Iran's ruling elite outward. Emphasizing Iran's image as the leading defiant power in the Middle East is likely to be Iran's strategy in response to the current crisis. Operationalizing such a strategy could entail an escalation of violence and instability in the region. Proxy conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza during the past three years proved instrumental for the consolidation of Iran's regional influence. Escalation on either or both fronts is likely in the aftermath of Iran's presidential elections.
The current crisis in Iran has brought to an end a short-lived relaxation in Iranian-western relations. The recent tension between Iran and the western powers, including the US, renders the long-awaited rapprochement between the two sides unlikely, at least in the short run. Dialogue with Iran has become a costly option for President Obama as well as for other western leaders. The US now needs to come up with new alternatives to Obama's policy of engaging Iran.- Published 25/6/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Gamal A. G. Soltan is director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo.