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Iranian interests in the Egyptian Unrest

Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 14, 2011

    The events in Tunisia have set off a chain reaction across the region. Major demonstrations have been held in Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan; there have been smaller demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan, apart from a minor crisis in Iraq. People following the politics of the Arab world have hailed it as a welcome change as it provides an opportunity to break out of decades of stagnation. The Iranian government is officially and publicly supporting the demonstrations in the Arab world in general and in Egypt in particular. Commonly perceived as Egypt’s regional rival, Iran has taken a pro-people stand and hopes to reap a good harvest of good will in the Arab world.

    Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini quickly seized the opportunity to claim that the Egyptian uprising and mass protests in Tunisia were modeled after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. He urged Egyptians not to “back down until the implementation of a popular regime based on religion,” and added that “Inshallah (God willing) part of the Egyptian army will join the people.” In a self-congratulatory mode, Khamenei also assumed that the Iranian revolution of 1979, which deposed the US-backed Shah, had created an example for the people of the Muslim world, particularly those living under similar “dictatorships”.

    The Opposition in Iran has also welcomed the wave of protests in the Arab world, but for different reasons. It is pertinent to mention here that huge street protests had taken place in Iran after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. Mir Hossein Mousavi, leader of the Opposition, has even stated that the Egyptian protests are modeled on the Green Movement demonstrations of Iran in 2009.

    In reaction, Egypt’s foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit warned Iran to mind its own business and reminded Khamenei about the widespread protests in Iran in June 2009. He added that Khamenei should be more attentive to calls for freedom in Iran rather than “distracting the Iranian people's attention by hiding behind what is happening in Egypt.”

    Egypt’s main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), also rejected Khamenei’s statements that the ongoing Egyptian movement was similar to the Iranian revolution of 1979. The MB’s official website stated that “the Egyptian Revolution is People’s Revolution not an Islamic Revolution”, which included “Muslims, Christians, from all sects and political groups.”

    The fact remains that Iran has nothing to do with Islamic revolution or popular democracy; reference to the Iranian revolution merely signals Iran’s quest for leadership of the Islamic world. There are other reasons too. First, Iran hopes that any regime change in the Arab world in general and Egypt in particular may produce leaderships that are less hostile to Iran than the current ones, as both countries have not enjoyed a cordial relationship since 1979.

    Second, this will provide new opportunities for the Islamic Republic to expand its area of influence in the region. Currently, Iran feels terribly insecure and uncomfortable due to western backing of the existing regimes in the Arab countries particularly in Egypt, and gets little chance to leverage its position in the Arab world.

    Third, Iran has had better relations with democratic states in the region and expects popular governments (which may replace the existing regimes) to be friendly towards Iran. For example, presently, Iran has cordial relations with Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey is even playing a mediatory role between Iran and the West regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. After decades of tensions Iran has friendly relations with Iraq. Iran is even maintaining cordial relations with Afghanistan despite western support. Fourth, Iran has not been comfortable with the Mubarak regime because of its close relations with the West and Israel. This may be the reason why Iran is supporting the popular movement, which it expects to be opposed to the (United States) US, Israel and the West.

    There is a strong possibility that with the fall of Mubarak regime, Iran would engage the new government in Egypt and push for bilateral diplomatic relationship after a gap of three decades. There was even hope of normalisation of relations between the two countries earlier, when Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani held talks with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in December 2009 in Cairo.

    No doubt, Mubarak’s fall may bring Iran closer to Egypt than ever before. If Mohamed ElBaradei (former head of International Atomic Energy Agency) succeeds Mubarak as a popular leader in Egypt, Iran may engage Egypt more openly; ElBaradei was also critical about the US for its mixed message on the crisis and for not strongly supporting the mass protests against the dictatorial regime. Iran is also likely to engage MB, if it comes to power, even though there are sectarian differences between MB and the ruling dispensation in Tehran. Iran has nothing to lose here because so far it has not had any friendly relations with Egypt since 1979.