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Τρίτη, 16 Δεκεμβρίου 2014 02:00

Iran and the Arab Uprisings: A current appraisal

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Iran has consistently attempted to portray the Arab spring as an "Islamic Awakening" and a continuation of its own Iranian revolution of 1979, in an attempt to further its main goal, the consolidation of its role as regional power. By choosing to ignore the clearly political, and not religious, context of the Arab uprisings, Iran has failed to mobilize the Muslim world under its wing. Its goal of achieving a "leader" status in the region, could be threatened even more by the risk of failure of the ongoing nuclear talks, and also by the menacing presence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

If there has been one immediate change the Arab Spring forced on the countries of the Middle East, it was the urgent need to reassess their regional policies. The uprisings of 2011 managed to radically affect the status quo of the entire region. Countries in revolutionary turmoil, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain were trying to cope with new realities, and neighboring countries experiencing the effects of these revolutions, like iranian revolutionIsrael, Saudi Arabia, Iran, did not waste any time to evaluate these developments, and adjust their policies. Israel, worried by the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, which was threatening the peace treaty between the two countries, was very hesitant about the uprising in Egypt. Saudi Arabia was concerned with the uprising of the Shia community in Bahrain, as it could potentially threaten her hold over the country. While the Arab Spring was viewed by many governments in the Middle East as a threat to the status quo, Iran saw in it an opportunity.

The uprisings in the Arab world constituted an excellent opportunity for Iran to establish its role as the main regional power, as the leader of the Muslim world, and to promote its Islamic Revolution of 1979, as a viable alternative across the region.[1] The export of the revolution has been and still is a major aspect of Iran's foreign policy spanning three decades. Its strategy for securing its place as regional power has been the perpetuation of its political hold over Iraq and to a lesser extent Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the facilitation of its Shi'ite network of allies, mainly Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the use of soft power, in order to win the favor of the Arab people. Its condemnation of the relationship between the United States and Israel, coupled with the backing of almost all popular uprisings in the region in 2011 are prime examples of this attempt for a hegemonic approach in the region's affairs by the Iranian governments.[2]

On February 11th 2011, just a few days after the toppling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and the day that Hosni Mubarak fell in Egypt, and coinciding with the day of the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, the Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, described events across the Middle East as "a natural continuation of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 [...] It was the same as the 'Islamic Awakening', which was the result of the victory of the big revolution of the Iranian nation".[3] The attempt to brand the uprisings as Islamic in nature, served the purpose of directly connecting them to the Iranian revolution, and therefore placing Iran at the helm of this awakening. Iran chose to ignore the fact that the main demands of the rebellions had nothing to do with Islam,[4] but rather were calls for freedom, democratic reforms, and an end to corruption.

Almost four years after the Arab revolts, Iran's policy of exploiting them for its own ends hasn't gone unhindered. The narrative of "Islamic Awakening" has come under heavy fire, domestically and abroad. The opposition in Iran, the Green movement, which organized the massive demonstrations of 2009, rejected the notion of the Islamic nature of the revolts, and offered a different approach. In January 2011, Mir Hossein Mossavi, one of the movement's leaders, and till this day still under house arrest after the suppression of the protests, declared that "the events in Tunis, Sana, Cairo, Alexandria and Suez could be traced back to June 2009, when millions of Iranian protesters demanded that their democratic rights be respected".[5] One could argue that Mossavi was closer to the truth, as the demands and the dynamics of the Arab uprisings of 2011 resembled more those of the Iranian demonstrations of 2009, than those of the Islamic revolution of 1979. Outside Iran, the Iranian narrative has also faced difficulties achieving acceptance and legitimacy. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood completely dismissed Khamenei's statement about the Islamic nature of the revolution, stating that they regard it "as the Egyptian People's revolution, not an Islamic revolution".[6] In his visit to Iran in 2012, Mohamed Morsi -then Egyptian President - stated that "Egypt is a Sunni state", clearly showing that sectarian differences still played a key role in the relationship of the two countries.[7]

The Iranian model, as it was dubbed in the official Iranian discourse, has struggled gaining legitimacy in the Arab world, mostly because of the constant questioning of Iran's intentions by the other Arab countries. This sanctimonious approach by Iran towards the Arab Spring has done nothing but reinforce these feelings of suspiciousness. The way that Iran handled the Syrian uprising showed the limits of its policy. Syria has been the closest ally of Iran since the latter's Revolution and a strategic asset to its regional interests. Losing its support, due to the uprising, would seriously affect Iran's status in the region. Therefore, when the Syrian uprising began, Iran expressed its support for the Assad regime, and interpreted this revolt in a different way than it did with the other uprisings in the Arab world. It viewed it separately as a "civil war", one which had been incited by foreign interests.[8] The Iranian press around the time of the Syrian uprising avoided mentioning the developments in Syria, while at the same time it was very informative concerning the Arab uprisings in other countries.[9] Iran's stance was in danger of undermining its own narrative of an "Islamic Awakening" in the region. The critique, domestically, was fierce and led by the Green Movement – the opposition party in Iran -, accused the government of only supporting the uprisings suiting its interests all the while condemning the ones that undermined its strategic plans.

This contradiction regarding Iran's ambiguous stand towards regional uprisings was amplified in the case of the Bahraini uprising, where Iran fully endorsed the Shia demonstrations, which were ultimately suppressed by Saudi Arabia. Iran supported the uprising as a clearly secular revolt, which it was in essence, opting to ignore the Shia aspect of the revolt, as it would undermine the "Islamic Awakening" narrative it was promoting. Saudi Arabia's stance in this matter was on the opposite side of the spectrum. It blamed Iran of supporting a Shia uprising against the Sunni regime of Bahrain instead of a popular revolt. Saudi Arabia attempted to add a sectarian element to the uprising, by choosing to ignore its clearly secular characteristics. This uprising was threatening the stability of the regime and undermining the Sunni predominance in the Gulf States, making it impossible for Saudi Arabia to allow it to grow. Iran's narrative of the Arab Spring as an "Islamic Awakening" has proven problematic, turning its model's prospects as an alternative into a challenge. While Iran is facing difficulties in achieving this craving for legitimacy, progress has been made. Its use of soft power has been, in certain instances (such as its support for the Palestinian cause) successful, and has relatively managed to oppose, or at least offer an alternative to the anti-Shia, anti-Iranian doctrine that Saudi Arabia has been promoting in the region.[10]

Iran currently has to face a considerably more complicated situation regarding its own geopolitical status, in contrast to 2011, when the Arab uprisings broke out. Its goal of achieving regional power status depends less on its affiliation with the Arab street, and more on the two fronts it has to deal with presently : the nuclear talks with the West, the outcome of which will undoubtedly affect its internal andiran morsi ahmedinejad foreign policies, and the threat that the Islamic State (IS) poses for Iran. While the government of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has followed a rather moderate foreign policy, the international community remains highly suspicious of Iran and hesitant in accepting an improvement of the relationship with the Iranian administration.

The talks between Iran and P5+1 (consisting of the USA, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany) concerning its nuclear program have failed for the time being to produce results. While significant progress has been made according to both sides, strong disagreements are still present. However, the talks, which were concluded on the 24th of November, have been extended for another seven months, till June 2015, with both sides looking rather calm about this development. The Iranians are aware that a failure in reaching an agreement would mean even harsher sanctions, which could produce friction or more volatile developments inside Iran. An agreement on the other hand, would mean the gradual lifting of sanctions that have been chocking the Iranian economy, and would avert thoughts of civil unrest in the country.[11]

Regarding the threat of IS, Iran is currently one of the main opponents of the jihadists in Iraq and Syria, offering military support, training and strategic coordination. Moreover, Iran's support is essential in recruiting the Shia majority in Iraq against the fight with the Islamic State.[12] Even if the US and Iran still don't consider their relationship as a friendly one, events on the ground may bring them closer together. In the fight against IS, they share a common interest: The United States and Iran both need a functioning government in Baghdad, one able to confront the Islamic State in the North of the country. Iran also needs to preserve its control of the southern Shia Iraq and its oil flow against the threat of IS, while the US, under these circumstances, is forced to remain in the region, contrary to its self-proclaimed objective of troop withdrawal. Taking into account the atmosphere of good will from Iranian nuclear program negotiations, there may be an opportunity for some sort of tactical cooperation in dealing with the Islamic State. In light of these changing dynamics in the area, Saudi Arabia is really worried by the mending of ties between the two countries, as it could potentially and severely threaten its regional status. Hence, Saudi Arabia needs the weakening of the Islamic State, in order for the forming bond between the US and Iran to subside.[13] Notwithstanding the presence of the Islamic State in the region and its openly hostile stance towards it, Iran will have to be careful not to undermine its own narrative of successfully opposing the West.


All links accessed on 21/11/2014

[1]  Ersoy, Eyup, “Iran and the Arab Spring: Discursive Realpolitik”, The Journal of Turkish Weekly, (25/10/2013) http://www.turkishweekly.net/columnist/3801/iran-and-the-arab-spring-discursive-realIMpolitik.html

[2]  Parsi, Trita, “Arab Spring Seen From Tehran”, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs,  http://www.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/CairoReview/Pages/articleDetails.aspx?aid=62

[3] Furtig, Henner, “Iran and the Arab Spring: Between Expectations and Disillusion”, GiGA Working Papers , No. 241, November 2013, p. 5 http://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/system/files/publications/wp241_fuertig.pdf

[4] Ragab, Eman, “Iran’s Role Dilemma in the Arab Region after the Arab Revolutions, In: Maj er, M. – Ondrejcsák, R. – Tarasovič, V. (eds.): Panorama of global security environment 2012. Bratislava, CENAA, pp. 429-440. http://cenaa.org/analysis/irans-role-dilemma-in-the-arab-region-after-the-arab-revolutions/

[5] op. cit.

[6] Kashani, Hanif Zarrabi, “Iran and the Arab Spring: Then and now”, Muftah, (7/3/2014), http://muftah.org/iran-arab-spring-now/#.VG_CpVzV24M

[7]  Ragab, Eman, op.cit.

[8]  Furtig, Henner, op.cit., p. 15

[9]  Rafati, Naysan, “After the Arab Spring: power shift in the Middle East?: Iran and the Arab Spring”, IDEAS Reports – special reports, Kitchen, Nicholas (ed.), SR011. LSE Ideas, London School of Economics and Political Science,  London, UK (May 2012), p. 51  http://bit.ly/1yALfmZ

[10]  Leverett, Flynt and Leverett, Hillary Mann, “Iranian soft Power”, Conflicts Forum (2/9/ 2012), http://www.conflictsforum.org/2012/iranian-soft-power/

[11]  De Bellaigue, Christopher, “Iran nuclear talks: why Tehran must be brought in from the cold”, The Guardian (2/10/2014), http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/02/nuclear-talks-why-tehran-must-come-in-from-cold

[12]  Torfeh, Massoumeh, “War on Islamic State: no chance without Iran”, Al Jazeera (13/9/2014), http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/war-islamic-state-no-chance-wit-201491362429239668.html

[13]  Friedman, George, “The Islamic State reshapes the Middle East”, Stratfor Global Intelligence, Geopolitical Weekly (25/11/2014), http://us4.campaign-archive1.com/?u=74786417f9554984d314d06bd&id=34e20c49a3&e=7b90f69393

Costas Faropoulos

Κώστας Φαρόπουλος

Αποφοίτησε από το τμήμα Κοινωνιολογίας του Παντείου Πανεπιστημίου το 2001. Απέκτησε τον πρώτο του μεταπτυχιακό τίτλο από το Βirkbeck College του Πανεπιστημίου του Λονδίνου το 2004, πάνω στη σύγχρονη πολιτική ιστορία.. Το 2013 ολοκλήρωσε το δεύτερο μεταπτυχιακό του στο τμήμα Πολιτικής Επιστήμης και Ιστορίας του Παντείου. Σήμερα είναι υποψήφιος διδάκτορας του τμήματος Πολιτικής Επιστήμης και Διεθνών Σχέσεων του Πανεπιστημίου Πελοποννήσου. Είναι μέλος του ΚΕΜΜΙΣ από το 2014.

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