Saturday, January 29, 2011

How Tehran Sees Tunis

From Iran, it's more about 1979 than 2009.

By Mehrun Etebari
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 29/01/2011

As Tunisian President-for-Life Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled into ignominious exile two weeks ago, democrats around the world found hope in the notion that Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution would spread to Iran. The images of demonstrations from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis reminded Americans of the massive 2009 protests that gave rise to Iran's opposition Green Movement, and as pro-democracy movements inspired by Tunisia emerged in Egypt and Yemen, many observers saw a chance for Iran to be next. But looking closer, it's clear that Iranians -- from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on down to the Green Movement opposition -- view the Tunisia situation as vastly different from their own, and not one that's likely to spill over into a renewed push for democratic reform in their own country. 

Despite the examples of Ben Ali and Egypt's beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak, Iran's leaders are far from running scared. In fact, Tehran is taking a distinctly more triumphalist understanding of the roots and effects of the Tunisian protests than American commentators would expect from another authoritarian Middle Eastern government -- particularly from one facing its own challenges from opposition forces. 

In the week following Ben Ali's frantic flight to Saudi Arabia, reactions from Iranian officials and state-supported media were, as always, bold and self-assured. But this is no skin-deep grandstanding designed to force a positive spin on an unsettling example of political upheaval. Where Washington sees an anti-authoritarian uprising, Tehran describes a 1979-style rejection of a U.S.-supported secularist: Ahmadinejad referred to the Tunisian uprising as an expression of the people's will for an Islamic order, and the Iranian Majlis voted overwhelmingly to support the "revolution." 

The conservative press thoroughly rejects any suggestion that the uprising in Tunisia is at all comparable to the Green Movement. A hard-line paper associated with the Revolutionary Guard Corps ridiculed comparisons in opposition media outlets between the economic conditions that helped spark the Tunisian riots and Iran's economic struggles, arguing that Tehran's recent success in implementing risky economic reforms was a testament to the regime's durable popular mandate. 

Hossein Shariatmadari -- one of the Islamic Republic's most influential conservatives -- used the Tunisian events to underscore the hard-liners' far-fetched claims that Iran's 2009 post-election violence represented a purely Western-oriented conspiracy. Writing in the hard-line Kayhan newspaper a few days after Ben Ali left the country, he likened the masses of Iranians who poured into the streets demanding a recount of the last presidential election to the despotic Ben Ali regime. By his logic, Tehran's repression of the protests and the Green Movement -- a Western plot -- was actually what emboldened Tunisians to seize their own independence from American-endorsed autocracy. 

Shariatmadari explained, "When the Muslim nations of the region see clearly that not just one arrogant power but all arrogant powers with all their powers and capabilities have been bitterly defeated against the Islamic faith and national perseverance of the Muslim people of Iran, do you not think that they would rise up for the liberation of themselves and their homeland from under the dominance of dictators and foreign colonialism?" While this idea may sound preposterous to American ears, the resonance it holds in the upper echelons of the Iranian leadership only points to a more assertive Tehran. 

In their triumphal postmortems of the Tunisian upheaval, Iran's conservatives have also excitedly forecasted similar revolutions in other pro-Western Arab regimes such as Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia -- a rare case where they and many American neoconservatives see eye to eye. These hard-liners are reveling in the notion that their Arab neighbors, particularly those governments that have aligned themselves closely with Washington, have become nervous about protesters emulating their Tunisian counterparts. 

As for Ahmadinejad's critics, their point of view is not too different. The most important political fault line in Iran currently lies between hard-liners and more moderate conservatives within the Islamic Republic's establishment -- not between the government and the opposition. Optimistic Western observers might hope to see moderate conservatives take a different view from that of their archconservative rivals. But on the issue of Tunisia, the conservatives seem to be marching in lock step. While they have been more likely to read the events in Tunisia as a revolt against authoritarianism as such, even some of Ahmadinejad's main conservative critics see the uprising as evidence of the reach of the Islamic Revolution. A commentator in the often critical Mardom-Salari daily wrote that it was clear that Iran had shown Tunisia that "Islamism is superior to non-Islamic and secular governments in Islamic countries." 

Perhaps the most important sign of Ahmadinejad's and Khamenei's staying power comes from the reaction of Iran''s dispirited and disorganized democratic opposition movement. Many in the Green Movement have embraced comparisons to the Tunisian protesters, but the opposition has largely struggled with how to interpret the Jasmine Revolution. Their reactions are bittersweet, ranging from a wistful sense of inspiration to soul-searching examinations of why Tunisians have succeeded where the Greens failed. Some have made excuses for the Green Movement's failure to remove Ahmadinejad, citing differences in the histories, demographics, and governments of Iran and Tunisia; others have tried hopefully to suggest that the Green Movement's lack of immediate and volatile results is actually a long-term strategic advantage. 

One piece written by Jamileh Kadivar, the now-exiled reformist intellectual and parliamentarian, and posted on the opposition Rah-e Sabz website just hours after Ben Ali's departure from power may be the best indicator of the Green Movement's current mood. Marveling at the Tunisian people's amazing feat, she called their actions a model for all oppressed populations worldwide. Without explicitly referencing Iran, she wrote, "This is a dawn that can be very close at hand for many of the peoples who are under the oppression of tyranny, if they only have pride and trust in their own strength." 

If American policymakers are looking for what the Green Movement is learning from the events in Tunisia, they may have to settle for Kadivar's vague optimism. What they will not find is an Iranian leadership conveying any sense of fear, disappointment, or insecurity as a result of the Tunisian uprising, or a reinvigorated, inspired reform movement like the one in Egypt. With no major divergence of views among the factions of the conservative establishment, it is impossible to conceive of cracks forming in the oft-uneasy alliance that maintains the Islamic Republic's stability; and the Green Movement is, at this point, simply too battered after a year and a half of severe repression to take advantage of cracks, if they were to open. 

It would be easy -- especially in light of the spread of protests to Egypt and other countries -- for Washington to embrace the idea that now is the time to openly and actively support the Iranian opposition. But this would be a grave miscalculation based on a false impression of Iranian weakness, one destined to backfire and brand the Green Movement as American puppets. Barack Obama's administration would be wisest to concede that no domino is likely to fall eastward onto Tehran.

Mehrun Etebari is a senior research assistant at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution

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