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Iran, the Arab revolts, and Syria

The Iranian leadership and official media portray the Arab spring as a “great Islamic awakening” targeted at the west and Israel. The turmoil in Syria explodes this narrative, says Sadegh Zibakalam.

Sadegh Zibakalam
1 November 2011

There has been a great debate during 2011 throughout the middle east and beyond about the origin, implications and future of the so-called "Arab spring". Everywhere in the region, academics, journalists and analysts are trying to examine the various aspects of this unexpected and baffling avalanche of events. Everywhere, that is, with the exception of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran deflects any possible surprises the Arab spring may pose for it. Its leaders and the state-run media view the momentous uprisings clearly and without ambiguity - not as a socio-political movement that aims to democratise Arab societies but as a “great Islamic awakening”. This may seem a mere formality, an expression of the intense religious feelings of many Iranian leaders. But the description is much more than a mere label; in employing it, its users have altered both the name and (more importantly) the entire substance of the movement.

In this perspective, the great Islamic awakening is inspired by the radical ideas embodied in Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979. That is to say, it is anti-western, anti-American and, above all, anti-Israeli. The Arabs, according to the Iranian leadership and media, were against Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the rest of the Arab leaders not so much because the latter were ruthless dictators but because they were primarily pro-western and enjoyed good relations with the Jewish state.

The fact that Mubarak recognised and had links with Israel counts for far more in the eyes of Iranian leaders than his autocratic style of government. Indeed, the general coverage of the Arab spring in Iran is so distorted that if you have no access to different media sources you would be inclined to believe that the Arabs, far from seeking democratic changes, want only to break relations with Israel and the United States. There is no reporting of the Arabs’ campaigns for political reform; of their opposition to political prosecution, detention of dissidents, and press censorship; and of their demands for the rule of law and free elections.

It is against this background that the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo received massive coverage in Iran, as if this was all the huge Arab uprising was about. Moreover, any contribution by an Islamist that is hostile or threatening towards the west, the United States or Israel receives widespread coverage in Iran; whereas remarks by the more liberal and secular, as well as by moderate Islamists who seek neither confrontation with the west nor to destroy the state of Israel, fail to get any attention, regardless of how significant the commentator might be.

The Syrian dilemma

A further important factor shapes Iran’s interpretation of the Arab spring. Many Iranian leaders perceive the Islamic regime to be in an ongoing ideological struggle with "the decadent west". The great Islamic awakening is in its view both a blow to its rival and a clear indication of Islam's moral superiority. The fact that most of the Arab leaders desperately struggling for their very survival were or are strategic allies of the west means that their demise is in fact a defeat for the west.

Only by going beyond the notion that the Arab rising was a mere social contest for political reform and democracy could Iran's Islamic leaders achieve an ideological gain against their enemy. The ideological dimension of the struggle against the west is crucial for them - to the extent that they interpret the current protests against economic hardship in several western countries (including the Wall Street occupation) as a sign of the collapse of western civilisation.

Here, Syria creates a dilemma for Iran. For the Syrian factor in no way fits into the grand theory of Islamic awakening. The Iranian leadership managed - ultimately, and with much difficulty - to portray the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi as a western puppet: the only way to portray the Arab uprising as an Islamic awakening against the west. Bashar al-Assad, however, could not possibly be portrayed as a western ally. Yet there is no escape from the reality of the huge protest against his regime. Thus the uprising in Syria punches a big hole in the narrative of Islamic awakening.

At the start of the troubles in Syria, both Iranian leaders and the state-run media ignored the events there. When some independent Iranian writers raised the issue of the brutal suppression of the Syrian people, the leadership was obliged to comment on the crisis. But in doing so it continues to maintain that the "nature of the uprising and protests in Syria is different from the rest of the Arab world. Whereas the uprising in the other Arab countries is genuine, in Syria it is Israeli and American agents who are catalysing unrest against the heroic and revolutionary regime." This contradictory view is increasingly hard to sustain.

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