By Meir Javedanfar
This commentqry was published in Foreign Policy on 01/02/2011
To say that relations between Israel and Iran have seen better days would not be an exaggeration. Israeli concerns about Iran's nuclear program had already pushed tensions to new heights. The formation of a new pro-Hezbollah government in Beirut made them worse.
Yet all of a sudden, events in Egypt have given both countries something they haven't had for a long time: shared interest. For both the Islamic Republic and Israel, the immediate implications of massive demonstrations on the streets of Egypt are bad.
For Iran's leaders, the fact that tens of thousands of Egyptians have defied the security forces and poured onto the streets to demand more jobs ought to make them nervous. The economic situation in Iran is also deteriorating. Recent changes to the government's vast subsidy program pushed up the price of food and other basic commodities, thus increasing economic hardship. As they watch events in Egypt, it would be logical for Iran's leaders to worry that their citizens may follow suit. (And the fact that the Iranian government deployed large numbers of security forces when the subsidy reform plan was implemented in December is a sign of just how worried it already was.)
There is also the political factor. Many Egyptian demonstrators initially asked for better economic conditions, but soon went on to call for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, whose democratic credentials are slim and getting slimmer. After President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial reelection, which millions saw as fraudulent, and the subsequent brutal crackdown, these days an increasing number of Iranians also believe that they live under a dictatorship. In a statement issued Jan. 29, opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi likened the situation in Egypt to Iran in June 2009. "Pharaohs usually hear the voice of the nation when it is too late," he warned, meaning the regime in Tehran should heed the demands of its people lest it, too, be at risk of being overthrown.
For now the Iranian government is doing all it can to counter the threat. Its key strategy consists of emphasizing the message that Islam is the real reason behind the uprising of Egyptians. "The uprising of the people of Egypt is due to the awakening of Islam in the region," an Iranian Foreign Ministry official said Jan. 28. Other officials try to convey the message that just like Iran today, Egypt will be an Islamic country in character. "To those who do not see the realities, I clarify that an Islamic Middle East is being created based on Islam, religion, and democracy with prevailing religious principals," stated Tehran's Friday prayers leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, on Jan. 28.
The Iranian press is following suit by conveying the message that the situation facing Mubarak is not like the one that Supreme leader Al: Khamenei faces. "Similarities between Mubarak and the shah of Iran, prior to being deposed" ran the headline of an article published Jan. 29 on the pro-Ahmadinejad Raja News website. "The fate of the shah of Iran awaits Mubarak" read another headline, this time published by the Iran News Network on Jan. 31.
First, there is the Gaza factor. While Egypt's security forces are busy worrying about domestic developments, Israelis worry, Hamas could use the chaos to increase the transfer of weapons and militants, possibly from Hezbollah, through Sinai and into the Gaza Strip via its sophisticated network of tunnels.
There's also no question the demonstrations are weakening Mubarak's regime, a key ally of Israel in the Middle East. His government has cooperated with Israel for years: sharing intelligence, working to contain Hamas, and of course maintaining bilateral peace. Egypt has been a key player in negotiations over the release of Israeli soldiers such as Gilad Shalit. A weakened Mubarak will most probably have to scale back such cooperation. And if Mubarak is deposed, it's highly doubtful that whatever government replaces him will be nearly as helpful.
In the long run, assuming events in Egypt are not replicated in Iran, Mubarak's ouster could in fact benefit the Islamic Republic. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief who has emerged as a key figurehead for the Egyptian opposition, would most probably allow Iran to open an embassy in Cairo. During his tenure as the head of the IAEA, he tried to maintain good relations with the West and Iran at the same time. It's likely that he would follow this strategy as president. Under his leadership, Egypt could become the second Turkey, meaning an emerging country that tries to reach out to the West and Islamic countries at the same time. But if the Muslim Brotherhood takes power, its vehement anti-Israel tirades and support for Hamas would be cheered in Tehran -- concerns Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed in a Jan. 31 news conference.
Although Mubarak's fall would be very bad news for Israel as a whole, some right-wing parties, such as Yisrael Beitenu and its head Avigdor Lieberman, would share the ayatollahs' joy, albeit for a different reason. For Lieberman, who famously stated in October 2008 that Mubarak could "go to hell," a less Israel-friendly Egypt or one that is altogether anti-Israel would greatly serve his party's ultranationalist platform, which thrives on the message that the entire Arab world is against Israel.
Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.