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The Arabs' Forlorn Envy of Iranians

24 Jun 2009 01:1017 Comments

Broadly speaking, the Arab world has maneuvered itself into a lose-lose situation vis-a-vis developments in Iran -- despite different views of the Islamic Republic.

By RAMI G. KHOURI in Amman/Beirut | 23 June 2009

I started writing this column Sunday in Amman, Jordan, and finished writing it Tuesday in Beirut, Lebanon -- a short journey that captured how the dynamic events in Iran are playing out in very different ways in a largely passive and vulnerable Arab world. Jordan and Lebanon capture the two extremes of the Arab world, including pro-American and pro-Iranian sentiments, Islamists, monarchists, and an assortment of tribal, Arab nationalist, state-centered and democratic values.

All of them, without exception, react to events in Iran with fascination, confusion, and concern, reflecting self-inflicted political incoherence and mediocrity that are hallmarks of the modern Arab world. Broadly speaking, the Arab world has maneuvered itself into a lose-lose situation vis-a-vis developments in Iran, despite different views of the Islamic Republic.

The uncomfortable common denominator is that for both the people and the ruling power elites of the Arab world, whatever happens in Iran will largely be perceived negatively by the majority in our region. This is a sad commentary on the condition of Arab political culture, which remains autocratic and rigid at the top, and passive and frustrated at the grassroots.

Most Arab regimes do not like Iran or even fear it, because of its capacity to inspire revolutionary Islamism or at least mildly insurrectionary movements within Arab countries. A few Arab leaders even speak of Iran's predatory or hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf region, Lebanon, Iraq and other lands. Only isolated pockets of power in the Arab world like or support the Iranian regime, including Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and some other Islamist or nationalist forces. Yet even the few isolated exceptions like Hamas and Hizbullah that have effectively carved out small domains of their own sovereignty are in an uncomfortable zone regarding events in Iran.

Arab public opinion, for its part, views Iran with much more nuance. Many Arabs cheered the Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah 30 years ago, and continue to enjoy Iran's defiance of the United States, Israel, UN sanctions and conservative Arab leaderships. Others in the Arab world see the Iranian Islamic revolution as a nasty export commodity that only spells trouble for Arab societies. Places like Lebanon and Palestine, especially, are offered the unattractive option of perpetual warfare with Israel, which entails the regular destruction of swaths of their society.

The irony today is that the Iranian regime and its policies are viewed very differently throughout the Arab world; but removing or reconfiguring the Islamic regime through street demonstrations or even through democratic elections seems problematic for virtually everyone in Arab society.

Most Arab governments dislike the current Iranian regime, so you would think they would be pleased to see it toppled, or tempered by its own people. Yet, if such change were to occur through street demonstrations choreographed via a web of digital communications, whispered messages, and rooftop religious chants in the middle of the night, Arab leaders of autocratic regimes would be unhappy -- because they would sense their own vulnerability to similar mass political challenges. The fact is not lost on anyone that the Iranian regime effectively withstood and defied American-Israeli-European-UN pressure, threats and sanctions for years, but found itself much more vulnerable to the spontaneous rebellion of many of its own citizens who felt degraded by the falsification of election results by the government.

(An intriguing side note: Events inside Iran picked up steam at the same time as the Iranian presidential elections coincided with the Obama administration's change of policy -- as Washington backed off the threats and aggressiveness of the Bush years -- and offered to engage with Iran on the basis of mutual respect. Would a more detached US policy towards Arab autocrats similarly open space for Arab domestic effervescence and indigenous calls for more liberal, honest politics?)

Arab regimes and leaders have worked themselves into a lose-lose situation whereby they would be unhappy if the Iranian regime stayed in power, and unhappy if it were removed through popular challenge. The same awkwardness defines the perspectives of Arab citizens. Most Arabs do not want to live in an Iranian-style political system that blends theocracy with autocracy; but many were pleased to see the pro-American Shah overthrown by Quran-carrying demonstrators. They would also be unhappy to see the Iranian regime overthrown because they enjoy its defiance of the United States, Israel and the UN in particular, along with its development of a nuclear capability.

At the same time, ordinary Arabs would feel jealous were the demonstrators in Iran able to topple their regime for the second time in 30 years -- because this would highlight the chronic passivity and powerlessness of Arab citizens who must suffer permanent subjugation in their own long-running autocratic systems without being able to do anything about it. Whether Iranian street demonstrations challenged the Shah or the Islamists who toppled him, Arabs watch all this on television with a forlorn envy.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright (c) 2009 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global

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This is an increasingly important topic. Thank you for covering it, even though it has been given next to no coverage in the press. I would appreciate reading more from you as the events progress.

Bistoon / June 23, 2009 10:20 PM

A very interesting perspective. Wouldn't it be something if the great neo-conservative dream of spreading democracy in the Middle East through external force was actually realized by internal political enlightenment (the only way it's really effectively come about throughout history)?

Even if the Iranian protesters do not accomplish their aims, it may be a Pyrrhic victory to the current regime, along with its neighbors. Aspirations of liberty among a well-educated middle class cannot be subjugated indefinitely.

matunos / June 23, 2009 11:30 PM

I am convinced politics of ALL flavors are simply a mechanisim to divide (control) people by pitting them against each other.

In the west it is Republican -vs- Democrat

or conservative -vs- liberal... many labels

one purpose - to divide and control.

Human hearts yearn for liberty and freedom.

True freedom can not be granted by a government for if it could that same govt could rescind it. Lasting Freedom is found in a correct relationship with our Creator.

Hate is antithesis of Love; Faith is antithesis of Fear; Faith is only as strong as the object of the faith

Truth is powerful-lies are as quicksand

The degree of deceit = depth of depravity

Is Iran being Crucified?


Folklight / June 23, 2009 11:46 PM

Very interesting article! There is not much analysis in the media on Arab's reaction to the recent movement in Iran. Just a reminder, in paragraph 4, line 3, it is Persian Gulf, not Gulf. Always check UN maps to make sure that you are using correct names.

Ajand / June 23, 2009 11:53 PM

It is improbable that arabs would welcome a nuclear Iran. They have been foes for centuries.

michael / June 24, 2009 12:08 AM

And there is also a longer term possible threat also. The sense I have of Iranians is that, not only do they want rights and freedoms that are their due, but they also want to be active participants in the world community. I believe that the youth of Iran are very in tune with what's going on in the global community via the internet and the strong networks with the Iranian "diaspora." If, in the best case, the Iranian people are able to become cooperative participants in the world community rather than the confrontational obstructionists of the current regime, and cement their freedoms and prosperity and peace as a result, what message would this send to the Arab community? Would this also present a threat to the Arab power brokers who use confrontation with the world community as a tool to solidify their grip on power? What happens if people begin to see the value of cooperation with the world community over confrontation with the world community?

rob / June 24, 2009 12:30 AM

Wonderful piece. Thanks for posting what no one else seems to be talking about in the US.

One question:

"Most Arab regimes do not like Iran or even fear it, because of its capacity to inspire revolutionary Islamism or at least mildly insurrectionary movements within Arab countries."

Should this read something like the following?

Most Arab regimes do not like Iran AND even fear it, because of its capacity to inspire revolutionary Islamism or at least mildly insurrectionary movements within Arab countries.

RAK / June 24, 2009 1:12 AM

Great insight. I will be looking for you on the web and hear more of what you have to say about middle eastern politics.

"Governments don't speak for their people, but speak for their corporate interest."

Danny Lynch / June 24, 2009 2:38 AM

Hell, I watch it from America with a forlorn envy, this willingness by their public to be politically engaged is what our founding fathers intended.

Lurlie / June 24, 2009 3:48 AM

rami - how about following this up with a comparative exposition of the differences between arabs and persians (modern day only) in terms of societal and individual proclivities and views? the religion is shared but the culture and ethnicity is farther apart. could this have an impact on the differences in today's actions by the people? (or lack of it?)

hamad / June 24, 2009 3:55 AM

As a poor but well educated American I reach out in friendship and solidarity to common people in Iran, Arabia, Europe, China, Russia, the Koreas and all around the world. Let's be buds and set ourselves free SOMEHOW!! Show us the way Iranian people

john hoover / June 24, 2009 12:50 PM

I think most Lebanese would like to see the Iranian regime be replaced by one that stops supporting Hizbullah. The Lebanese have voted two weeks ago against Hizbullah, and are frankly tired of the rhetoric of war, as they have paid the highest price in the struggle with Israel and Palestine..... The Iranian revolution has done an enormous damage to the face of Islam around the world, and it is time for it to stop. Hey the Soviet Union was much bigger, richer and stronger, and look at it now, it all fell apart... so we sit and wait, pray and hope that it will happen.

S V K / June 24, 2009 9:46 PM

To give Obama any credit for the rising up of the people in Iran is wrong.

Using that argument would mean President Kennedy supported the Pay of Pigs freedom fighters. They are rising because they are tired of fake election and they realize they are smarter than the Mullahs controlling them

I really hope there is courage in Iran to march against the fear of death - that is not an easy thing to undertake, I doubt I could do it.

Obama has betrayed the spirit of NEDA out of fear being both late and mild in speaking out, against their chains of slavery. How ironic - I wonder if he would have taken the same weak approach to Lestor Maddox and Bull Conner physically oppressing black people in our own America in the South in recent past ?

I will offer the words from the late Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues album, "Inside the walls of prison my body may be, but the Lord has set my soul free". May all the souls seeking freedom be free.

May Obama eventually find the courage to be on the right side of justice and history.

Bill Blaylock / June 24, 2009 10:07 PM

If you think freedom means living lives controlled by our own greed and selfishness, "doing your own thing" as has happened in the West you are making a big mistake. Freedom means overcoming the inherent selfishness and pride with which every single human being is born. Not untill we live lives of loving God with our whole heart and mind and our neighbour as ourselves are we truly free. And that can be done without the permission of a government. Nobody can stop a person from excercising this "real" freedom. We have three enemies to our freedom; the world, the flesh and the devil and all must be taken on within our own selves. - Blessings - Rene

Mrs. Rene O'Riordan / June 25, 2009 5:37 AM

This article contains absolutely zero substance. I don't understand how this provided people with "great insight" or offered an "interesting perspective."

Arab regimes obviously "dislike" (improper word that the author chose to use) the current Iranian government, while at the same time hold insecurities regarding the overthrow of that regime. Obvious.

The author insinuates that Persians are somehow genetically superior to the "confused" and "awkward" Arabs, and highlights the supposed jealousy of the "passive" "envious" inferior.

What the article fails to mention is that the United States supports Arab regimes and ensures their survival because they protect American interests. Many indigenous pro-democracy movements have developed in the Arab world only to crushed ruthlessly by these American sponsored regimes without a hint of air time on the American or greater Western Media. The only reason the middle class demonstrators in northern Tehran are getting this much media attention is because the American government opposes the regime in Iran due to its threat against vital American interests in the region. Without all of this media attention the demonstrations would have died down soon after the elections. Similarly, without longstanding US support for Arab regimes, the governments in these countries would have been under much more threat and possibly would have been removed by now.

The author fails to shed light on this subject even though it is relevant to the article's topic. Two thumbs down.

intifadaman / June 25, 2009 4:29 PM

I'm wondering how of Arabs' feelings about Iran are driven by the Sunni/Shia split. A powerful and internationally legitimate and respectable Iran might be seen as having the rest of the world side with the shiites.

The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (not me, we just happen to have the same name) had a small piece in the Atlantic Monthly recently on this.

Jeffrey P Goldberg / June 30, 2009 10:45 AM

Very intersting Article and very intersting point of view you reveal . thank you sir.

pooya / June 24, 2010 10:27 AM