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Iran's Approach to the Arab Uprisings

by ALEX VATANKA

23 Feb 2011 18:45Comments
2_8606120613_l600.jpgIran's case-by-case approach to the Arab uprisings.

[ analysis ] Reading some of the newspapers in the Sunni-majority Arab states, you may get the impression that Tehran's long regional arm is actively involved in encouraging Shia rebellion in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. This narrative coming from such Arab corners, warning about the meddling and expansionist Shia and Persian state, is nothing new and has been enduring since the emergence of Shia political power in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussain in 2003.

However, the real merits of such anxieties aside, as we witness the unfolding of popular uprisings across the Arab world, we ought to be careful about oversimplifying Tehran's regional game plan. Unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and now Bahrain and elsewhere each represent distinct opportunities for Tehran. Despite the euphoria in Tehran about a region-wide "Islamic awakening," there is no one-size-fits-all Iranian blueprint for how to deal with Arab states.

For sure, Iran's grand plan is to become the undisputed regional power and the regime in Tehran states this openly and frequently. But Tehran's reaction to events in Bahrain shows that it does not want to be overly hasty as it seeks to arrive at this goal. It will only stick its neck out for Arab regime change after a careful cost-benefit analysis that is country-tailored.

Bahrain vs. Egypt

In the last few days, Iranian state-controlled media have had nothing but venomous comments for Iran's Green Movement protesters who they dismiss as "foreign-backed" and "rioters." Compare that to the same media's coverage of anti-government demonstrations in Bahrain which are invariably depicted as "pro-democratic" and against "dictatorship."

This glaring hypocrisy aside, the Iranian officialdom is overall considerably more circumspect in what it says about events in Bahrain. In contrast to the outright incitement to insurrection that was aimed at the Egyptian population prior to the toppling of the Mubarak regime, Tehran's posture toward the Al Khalifa ruling family is at least publicly restrained.

In a February 20 speech to an international gathering of Islamic scholars, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did not even mention Bahrain by name when speaking about the "proper ways to steer present events in the Islamic world." This was very different to Khamenei's approach to the Egyptian revolt.

Evidently excited about the turn of events in Egypt, Khamenei decided to lead the country's main Friday prayer on February 4, his first in seven months. In that sermon, delivered partly in Arabic and widely publicized by Iran's state-run Arabic-language channels that target audiences in the Arab World, the Supreme Leader did not hold back. Calling Hosni Mubarak a "tyrant" and "a Western and Zionist lackey," Khamenei spoke before the Egyptian uprising had prevailed and was clearly aiming both to influence events in Egypt and also give Iran a lead in what Tehran is hoping will become a new Middle East.

Iran holds back

In the case of events in Bahrain, Iranian leaders have been far more careful in choosing their words. So far in the Bahraini revolt, Tehran's posture has been to stay away from any sectarian language in support of the Bahraini protesters who are overwhelmingly Shia, even though the standoff is heavily seen through the prism of Shia-Sunni and Iranian-Saudi balance of power in the region. References to the Shia identity of the protesters are surprisingly limited; instead Iranian officials and media have cast the struggle as one between the "people" and the "ruling royal family."

In fact, there is even some evidence that Tehran is seeking to absolve any guilt the Khalifa household may have in the killing of protesters. If you believe Iran's state-media, such as Press TV, the anti-protester violence was carried out by Indian and Pakistani mercenaries led by British officers using British imported weapons. In fact, this anti-British position is arguably the only other consistency Tehran has shown in connection to events in Bahrain.

So why is Tehran not openly acting as the great defender of one of the region's most prominent Shia populations, as the standard narrative would have us believe? At least in this instance, the answer is rooted in Tehran's undoubtedly hardheaded, and not ideological or sectarian, calculations. Put aside Iran's rhetoric about "Islamic awakening." That was relevant as a talking point against a Mubarak regime which Iran had not had ties with since 1981. Khamenei and other Iranian officials gambled somewhat when they came out so strongly against Mubarak before he was toppled. But let's face it. Tehran did not have a lot to lose in that context as relations could hardly become much worse even if Mubarak had stayed on.

In Bahrain, the situation is quite different. The Islamic Republic has continuously had relations with all the six Gulf Cooperation Council states despite the underlining suspicions that pepper ties. The Khamenei and Ahmadinejad regime has also invested considerable efforts in recent years in reaching out to the GCC countries. At a minimum, this has been hoped to counter U.S. plans to isolate Iran. At a maximum, such overtures by Tehran are geared toward enabling Iran's re-integration as a stakeholder in the common basic security and economic frameworks of the Persian Gulf region.

Miscalculation over the outcome of events in Bahrain would, unlike the case with Egypt, have negative and tangible consequences. Moreover, periodic Shia unrest in Bahrain has been common in the last decade, and although these latest demonstrations outdo those that came before it, there is still no way for Iranian policy-makers to know that the Khalifa rule is about to collapse. But even if it did, the most likely political elite to emerge in Manama will include more Shias in its senior ranks, and here Iran can expect to gain by default since the other regional power, Saudi Arabia, has already unequivocally banked on the survival of the Al Khalifa rule.

The two different reactions in Tehran to unrest in Egypt and Bahrain showcase the Iranian regime's versatile approach to political upheaval in the Arab world. Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and others in Tehran might propagate the notion of "Islamic awakening," but that is arguably a red herring and a pretext to make more anti-U.S. charges due to Washington's links to some of the Arab states witnessing popular mobilization. So far in this winter of Arab revolutions, Iran has only stuck its neck out for the protesters in Egypt where the political cost of its backing was small and the potential prize far greater if Tehran's gamble pays off.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bahrain's foreign minister embrace during a recent visit.

Alex Vatanka is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. He was previously a senior analyst with Jane's Defense where he covered the Middle East for ten years.

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