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Hussein Ibish

Iran and the Arab Spring

As anti-government protests are sweeping the Arab world, it's easy to forget that less than two years ago Arabs looked on in amazement as the people of Iran took to the streets to demand their rights.

Following an obviously rigged election in the summer of 2009, the Iranian "Green Movement" – which united conservatives, and even Islamists, disenchanted with the regime with opposition groups of various kinds – formed as a nonviolent civil rights movement. Many Arab commentators, myself included, wrote about why this apparently could happen in Iran but not in Arab states, and asked what it would take for Arabs to emulate the Iranian example.

Iran's Green Movement has been successfully repressed, while the momentum of popular struggle for political freedoms unexpectedly shifted to the Arab world at the end of last year. And while the Iranian movement appears dormant, at least for now, patience is the watchword of opponents of the regime.

I recently took part in a panel in Washington DC on a new book, The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran's Future, an important collection of contemporaneous responses and interventions to four different stages in Iran's Green Movement, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel. Joining me were BBC World Service reporter Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar and Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council.

The most interesting part of the conversation, for me at least, was our discussion about the relationship between the Arab uprisings and both Iranian foreign policy and the future of the Green Movement.

Parsi offered a fairly subtle analysis that focused on the rise of Turkish influence in the Middle East as a rival, but not an outright enemy, of Iran. He suggested that a combination of competition and cooperation between those two states could offer a degree of stability in the region, especially since, he argued, they had a history of managing disputes by containing them and avoiding outright confrontation.

Parsi also suggested that not only might the rule of hard-liners in the Iranian government be undermined by democratization in the Arab world, it could also be weakened by an application of Turkish “soft power” in the region. Here he saw powerful implications of ongoing events in the Middle East for the Green Movement over the long run, and potential opportunities to push reform in Tehran.

Tabaar emphasized the patience of the Green Movement and the commitment of almost all of its factions not to push the country into chaos or uncontrolled revolutionary change. He also noted that, partly because of the fallout from the Green Movement, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was becoming increasingly isolated from the ruling faction and shifting his positions in an effort to avoid marginalization.

Both Parsi and Tabaar agreed that the Iranian ruling faction views the Arab uprisings as part of an “Islamic awakening” and expects to benefit greatly from changes in the Arab world. I suggested there were many reasons to doubt this.

Islamist ideology has not informed most of the Arab uprisings so far.

While Sunni Arab Islamists might benefit from opened political space and elections in countries like Egypt, they might well not come to power. If they do, they might be politically or constitutionally constrained in their use of it. Even if they are unimpeded, they might nonetheless not be particularly friendly toward Tehran because of sectarian suspicions or national interests. The idea that Islamists will cooperate across ideological and national divisions no matter what isn't any more realistic than the early 20th century fantasy that all Communist states would pursue harmonious foreign policies.

Moreover, the latest wave of the “Arab Spring” is rapidly threatening the stability of the government of Iran's closest and most important Arab ally, Syria. Everything is in play in the Arab world. All groups in power, and all assets every party believes it possesses, are potentially at risk because most of this change is uncontrolled and undirected. Even Iran's most obvious new opportunity for advancing its interests in the Arab world – Bahrain – has yet to deliver much to Tehran other than the embarrassment of invoking the rights of Bahraini protesters with memories of the violent crushing of the Green Movement so fresh.

The fact is that in spite of Arab unrest and the optimism of the Iranian ruling faction, they have not yet accrued a single tangible, strategic or stable benefit from these uprisings. The entire panel agreed that, whatever the fantasies or expectations of the Iranian regime, the “Arab Spring” offers at least as many challenges to their agenda as it does opportunities. And, in the long run, it may well help breathe new life into the dormant Green Movement. The demand for reform, which spread from Iran to the Arab world, may soon enough swing back in the direction of Tehran.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • Ghadanfara

    tg, the first thing the new Egyptian government did was to tell Iran to butt out. The second thing was not interfere in the latest Israel Hamas skirmish. You are 0 for two.

    April 22, 2011

  • louisette

    The article is very interesting. regarding the green movement in Iran I have to say that unfortunately it's not active anymore like on the very first demonstrations.It's obvious that Basijis conduct and demolish the country and kill the people for money .They are not crazy to refuse big amounts offered to them after each murder or demonstration, .But "apres la pluie le beau temp"this will not last for ever.I don't feel sorry for the people of Iran .When there is no solidarity between them and when they don't ban things or articles for their own benefits and others, so, they have to pay it . problems last and go on without any hope for a better situation in Iran .The people of Iran deserve such a regime.they betray each other for wrong beliefs injected in their brain from their parents and ancestors(if you disobey the seyyed you will face bad events).with such mentality how can people think or move? .modernity is different than culture. people have shortage of culture there

    April 20, 2011

  • CEDAR REVOLUTION / GEBRAN SONS

    The sentence "Iran's Green Movement has been successfully repressed" is contrary to the flow of history. Basij will certainly win in the short time with their ruthless brutality and Jahilya mentality. Whether there were an Arab Spring or not, Tehran Spring will certainly rise again in 2013 as educated and productive Iranian cannot live forever in the Ahmadinajad’s prison of the mind and soul created by the Grand Inquisition of the Ayatollahs and their likes. Iran with its rich natural resources has lower per capita GDP then Lebanon. Like Hizbollah(...), the country resources have been used to create tools of repression and support failed economic policies based on welfare subsidies and state planed economies that have been rejected by the civilized world as degrading to human dignity and suffocating the free entrepreneurial and creative spirit while chaining the country into a bureaucratic corrupt system subservient to political influence peddling. Tehran Spring a certainty in 2013

    April 19, 2011

  • tg

    It cannot be overstated how useful Mubarak was in forming a wall against Iranian influence. Whatever government that emerges will be far less likely to follow US/Saudi/Israel orders to see Iran as an enemy. This also extends to the relationship Egypt will have with Hamas.

    April 19, 2011