Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quicker towel come the ‘Arab Spring’ than United States President Barack Obama. While publicly comparing the unrest to its own “Islamic Revolution,” Tehran was weighing how the demise of two friends of the US in Egypt and Tunisia, and unrest in Yemen and Bahrain, might affect its struggle for influence with the US and its allies. The Iranian authorities meanwhile nipped in the bud February’s attempt by the opposition Green Movement to return to the streets, while the economy was buoyed by rising oil prices that passed $100 a barrel for the first time since 2008, due to the events in Libya and fears of unrest in Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s fiscal outlook suddenly looked rosier, easing apprehension over contentious plans to phase out $100-billion in annual subsidies of everyday items, such as gasoline. Then came unrest in Syria, a challenge to both Tehran and Washington. The US had tried for two years to entice Damascus into a “peace process” with Israel, and to weaken its alliance with Iran, buying into the Syrian regime’s argument that it acts as a bulwark against militant Sunnism and al-Qaeda. For Iran, Syria is far more strategic, its sole long-standing ally in the Arab world whose loss would mark a major setback. Of course Tehran would miss its most practical link to Hezbollah in Lebanon; additionally, Syrian unrest, along with protests in northern Iraq, has brought the ‘Arab spring’ dangerously close to home.
The concern here for Tehran lies in Kurdistan. Iran’s seven million Kurds have never shown love for the Islamic Republic. A military onslaught was deemed necessary after the 1979 Revolution to bring them into line, and while the main Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, ended its armed presence in Iran in 1997, it has been outflanked by the Party for a Free Life in Iranian Kurdistan, an active and militant group linked to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party. The 1997 presidential ballot was also the last time Kurds engaged in any meaningful way with the national electoral process, turning out in massive numbers for Mohammad Khatami.
A little more than six years ago, Nawsherwan Mustapha, who has subsequently led Goran (‘change’), the main opposition group in Kurdish northern Iraq, told me that future opposition in Iranian Kurdistan would not be armed struggle but non-violent street protests. His words may prove to be prescient. In Kurdish Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s decision to grant citizenship to tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds — originally from Turkey — has not stemmed unrest in the northeast. Many Kurds have been inspired by the autonomy carved out by the Kurds in Iraq, rousing in them the idea that, sooner or later, they will be able to assert their own rights.
In Iran’s Kurdish region, Tehran has a large security presence and military posts dot the borders with Iraq and Turkey, but even so many Iranian Kurds travel back and forth to Iraq. This is more often to smuggle goods than attend political meetings, but it still spreads contagion. Opinions differ on the fragility of the Iranian body politic. John Bolton, former United Nations ambassador for the United States and a colorful expounder of influential views in US foreign policy, recently presented an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal depicting Iran as a regional hegemon bending the region to its will. This caricature suits many political interests — including those of the Israelis, of the Saudis in denying domestic unrest in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia itself, and of certain factions in Lebanon — but it flies in the face of the military disparity in the Persian Gulf. Even excluding Israel or the formidable Bahrain-based US fifth fleet, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries spent 16 times as much on arms as Iran did between 1988 and 2007, and Saudi Arabia alone has more combat planes and tanks.
True, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and some cohorts, still enthused by their surprise election victory in 2005, often portray Iran as a superpower. But wise counsel within the leadership knows well that Iran is hugely outgunned, that the Shia are greatly outnumbered in the Islamic world, and that the Islamic Republic has therefore a greater interest in stability than in conflict.
Hence the Iranian leadership’s muted response to the March 14 intervention of Saudi-led troops in Bahrain to quell Shia-led protests; hence its nerves over Syrian unrest. As summer approaches, the ‘Arab Spring’ blows an increasingly uncertain wind toward Tehran.
Gareth Smyth is a former correspondent for the Financial Times in Iran