Early last month, the website of Mir-Hossein Musavi, co-leader of Iran’s opposition Green Movement, presented two pictures. One from Egypt showed police beating a protester, under the heading ‘heroic’. The second was a similar scene in Iran, from the 2009 anti-government protests, under the heading ‘agent of imperialism’. Musavi and his ally, Mehdi Karrubi, have compared Egypt’s elections of recent years, won by the Hosni Mubarak’ National Democratic Party, to Iran’s 2009 presidential election, after which the Greens disputed the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They have also highlighted the role of new means of communication used by protestors in both countries.
But the implications for Iran of events in Egypt and Tunisia are not straightforward: if the demise of presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has unnerved the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and even the West Bank, the authorities in Tehran have visibly relished the discomfort of so many Western-inclined Arab regimes.
At the outbreak of protests in Cairo and Alexandria, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, insisted that Egypt was experiencing an Islamic Revolution of its own, marking what he called the “irreparable failure for the American and the Zionist regimes [and]… an earthquake” that would undermine “arrogant governments” across the region. Addressing Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Khamenei was jubilant in noting that the Egyptians “begin their movements from Friday prayers and mosques, and they shout religious slogans, especially ‘allahu akbar.’”
The irony was not lost on the Green Movement, which adopted rooftop shouts of “allahu akbar” in 2009 when street protests were outlawed and dispersed by security forces.
The animosity of Iran’s current leaders toward the Egyptian regime stems from the friendship between former Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and the late Shah of Iran, Mohammad Pahlavi, in the 1970s, when both embraced the United States and Israel. Diplomatic relations between the two ended after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution; after Sadat was assassinated in1981 the Iranian authorities named a central Tehran street after his assassin, Khaled Islambouli. Since the 1979Islamic Revolution, Iran’s rulers have been more successful than Egypt’s infusing nationalism with egalitarianism, and in mobilizing the population behind goals of defense and development.
But the main prism through which Iranian leaders view the world has been their rivalry with the US and opposition to Zionism. The Green Movement rejects this, arguing that Iranian politics can no longer be shaped solely by resistance to the US and Israel. But ardent loyalists of Ayatollah Khamenei and supporters of President Ahmadinejad are more and more convinced regional developments are moving in their favor, and that a more assertive foreign policy, including the nuclear program and support for Palestinian resistance, is popular both at home and in the wider Muslim and Arab worlds.
This is not entirely a matter of faith. One calculation in Tehran is that more representative Arab governments would be less hostile to Iran. American diplomatic cables leaked last year by the WikiLeaks website suggested that leaders in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE were sympathetic to US military attacks on Iran — whereas a poll by the Washington-based Brookings Institution found that only 10 percent of respondents in the general population of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE viewed Iran as a threat.
Public officials, along with the Iranian media, have also expressed a positive view of Mohamed El Baradei, the Egyptian opposition figure who, as head of the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency, resisted much US pressure to condemn Iran’s nuclear program. They have also been supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has had a close relationship with Iranian Islamists since as far back as the 1970s. One Brotherhood official, Kamal al-Halbavi, warmly welcomed Ayatollah Khamenei’s Friday prayer sermon and also told the BBC Persian service he wanted Egypt to have “a good government, like the Iranian government, and a good president like Mr Ahmadinejad, who is very brave.”
Gareth Smyth is the former Tehran correspondent for the Financial Times