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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Arabs ponder implications of Iran's unrest

Response to the crackdown has been muted but ranges from fear of an assertive neighbour in the UAE to private criticism from Sunni Saudi Arabia

Arabs – governments and people – are reacting to Iran's post-election turbulence with mixed feelings, impressed by a display of regime-shaking people power, alert to the perception of western double standards or meddling, but above all pondering the repercussions of the crackdown in Tehran.

Mutual Persian-Arab animosity dates back centuries but the legacy of the 1979 Islamic revolution has been reinforced by the post-Saddam Shia ascendancy in Baghdad, the growth of Muslim sectarianism and the fear of a powerful and assertive neighbour: thus the muted or defensive official attitudes in Iran's immediate neighbourhood.

On the other side of the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates authorities moved quickly to shut down a newspaper which ran a critical article about the repression. In Dubai, home to a huge Iranian expatriate community, protests were banned.

But in Bahrain, with a Sunni royal family, a restive Shia majority and fears of Iranian subversion, there was warm praise for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "If he was a candidate in any Arab country against a current president," wrote Qassim Hussain in al-Wasat, "the public would vote for him."

In regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, leader of the conservative Arab camp, there has been resounding public silence but private criticism – hardly surprising for an autocratic country with no political parties and where even local elections have been put on hold. Beneath the surface lies Saudi concern about possible unrest in the oil-producing Eastern province, where there is a Shia majority and a history of Iranian influence.

Unequivocal support for the Iranian regime came only from Syria – where President Bashar al-Assad won 97.6% in an uncontested referendum two years ago – and from Lebanon's Hezbollah, whose secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, saluted Ahmadinejad's victory as "a great hope to all the mujahideen and resistance movements who are fighting against the forces of oppression and occupation".

Equally predictably, from the other side of the ideological divide, came barely concealed glee that Iran's policies and alliances were coming under fire at home: "Iranians are now speaking out boldly against the squandering of public money on Hezbollah and Hamas … especially as Hamas only spends their money on fighting [rival Palestinian group] Fatah," commented Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV.

For most Arab governments – as for Israel – the chief concern about Iran's turmoil is any likely effect on the future of its nuclear programme. On one reading, the uncompromising position of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, means there is now little chance of a positive response to Barack Obama's "outstretched hand", a posture reiterated in his Cairo speech earlier this month. "Authoritarian regimes are most dangerous and adventurous when their survival is threatened and they feel they have little to lose," warned the Dubai-based analyst Riad Kahwaji in a Bitterlemons article.

But an alternative view – wishful thinking perhaps – suggests a more benign scenario. "Now the Iranians will be more cautious and think twice about some of their policies," predicted a senior Gulf diplomat. "They will have to listen to their own people more especially because of the economic situation. They will moderate their behaviour."

Watching the repercussions of Iran's election, Arabs have also made (largely unflattering) comparisons with their own regimes.

In its limited, theocratic, way Iran is still more democratic than any Arab country except Lebanon and Kuwait. In Egypt, with all its weight and influence, protests over recent parliamentary and presidential elections were quickly silenced by the security forces, and attracted little western attention.

"Global media reporting of crackdowns in Egypt is mild," commented journalist Sara Khorshid. "It would be just a small story in the Middle East section in or"

Still, say others, there are useful lessons from Iran's "green" wave for other opposition movements, especially the use of new media technologies like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and SMS messaging.

On a more negative note, many Arab pundits have written off western interest in the Iranian opposition as another case of double standards.

"When [exactly] did the US start worrying about the Iranian people, or [for that matter] about any other Arab or Islamic people?" asked the Sudanese paper al-Rai al-Aam. "Hasn't it labelled all of them terrorists?" Indifference to the suffering of the Palestinians – especially during the Gaza war – is often mentioned.

Outlandish conspiracy theories have also been advanced, going far beyond Iran's claim of meddling by British spies or the BBC. "I understand that the majority of those protesting on Iran's streets are young people genuinely seeking a change," wrote a columnist in the UAE's Khaleej Times. "But there may be many in their ranks who would want Iran destroyed and neutralised, just as Saddam's Iraq has been. It's hardly a secret Israel has been itching to strike at Iran for some time now but never got the go-ahead from the US already stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan. So Israeli involvement in the current crisis in Iran is not as improbable as it might sound."

Iran's crisis is, at the very least, food for thought all over the Middle East, even if not all the conclusions are very convincing. Still, it is hard to disagree with the ever-perceptive Rami Khouri: "Arabs will not feel comfortable seeing the Iranian people twice in 30 years fearlessly challenging their own autocratic regimes, while the people of the Arab world meekly acquiesce in equally non-democratic and top-heavy political systems, that treat their own people as unthinking fools who can be perpetually abused with sham elections and other forms of abuse of power."

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