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.