This is an updated and expanded article based on the presentation at the Workshop “Arab Spring from the perspective of Al-Qaida and Iran” at ICT’s 11th International Conference, September 2011, forthcoming in the book with the Conference’s proceedings.
At the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011 Iran seemed to be the great regional winner. The Iranian leadership considered events in Tunisia and Egypt as an anti-American movement playing to their advantage.
In February 2011, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, saying that the political upheaval in the Arab world was part of an “irreversible defeat” for the United States and an “Islamic awakening” in the Middle East. He compared the popular uprisings against Western-backed autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.i
In a speech as part of a commemoration of Eid al Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned the West to not take advantage of the “Arab Spring.” He referred to the uprisings as “destiny making and decisive” but warned of trouble for the Arab world if “imperialist and hegemonic powers and Zionism” were able to take advantage of the situation.ii
Khamenei said that Sunni Arabs do not accept Iran’s principle of the Rule of the Jurisprudent (velayat-e faqih) and therefore Iran must instill its Islamic system among Arab Spring nations with the concept of “religious democracy.”iii
The daily Keyhan predicted that the fall of Mubarak’s regime will deal a major blow to the regional status of the U.S. while Iran’s status will likely strengthen and it will take charge of the developments in the Middle East. President Ahmadinejad declared that “a Mideast without Israel and America is now possible.”
However, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood rejected Khamenei’s statements, calling the uprising the “Egyptian people’s revolution.”iv
On the diplomatic/strategic front, it was significant that the Egyptian transitional government seemed ready to re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran after a break of more than 30 years.v
Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have taken conflicting positions towards various Arab uprisings. While supporting the Egyptian and Tunisian people against their leaders, and criticizing the Bahraini government in support of the Shiites there, they supported the violent repression of Syrian demonstrators by the regime in Damascus.
At a time when Muammar Qaddafi was facing international isolation, Iran remained silent with regards to the developments in Libya. Iran became one of the harshest critics against military intervention in Libya as the steadfastness of Qaddafi in face of the NATO campaign served also as a shield against international intervention in Syria, or Iran itself.vi
In March 2011, in the wake of deaths and missing persons at the hands of security forces and increasingly volatile anti-government protests, the King of Bahrain called for help from the GCC to restore order. The GCC responded by sending Saudi troops and Emirati police officers into the country and the situation returned to relative stability.vii Bahrain’s uprising was crushed in part due to the military intervention of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the country’s Sunni monarchy continued to deal severely with those involved in widespread protests, mostly members of its repressed Shiite majority.viii
The assertive behavior of Saudi Arabia and its military intervention against the Shiite demonstrators in Bahrain have left Iran with a big problem. It has failed to act quickly to implement its threats of intervention in Bahrain, but rather pursued a careful diplomatic policy. The Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi tried to reopen the severed communication channels with Saudi Arabia and changed the hardline rhetoric, whilst at the same time Iran clandestinely supported its Shia allies in Bahrain with money and arms.
Internally, Iran has behaved nervously out of fear that the Arab popular rebellion will contaminate the Iranian youth. Indeed, tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran in February to demonstrate solidarity with Egyptian and Tunisian protesters, ignoring threats from the government. But the Iranian police responded with beatings, arrests, tear gas, and other brutal measures and the regime had the upper-hand in the situation with its forces clearly willing to use maximum brutality.
Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria would be a strategic blow to Iran, cutting off its most important bridge to the Arab world while empowering its main regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and its increasingly influential competitor, Turkey, both Sunni-majority nations. Iran would also lose its main arms pipeline to Hezbollah in Lebanon, further undermining its ambition to be the primary regional power from the Levant to Pakistan.