Iran loses clout in Arab world
In the wake of its disputed election, Iran faces diminished support from some friends and hardening opposition among foes.
Ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has cast itself as a utopian model. On the very day he established the "government of God," Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the founder of the revolution that toppled the repressive pro-Western regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi – declared that Iranians would be "exemplars for all the world's oppressed." In some parts of the Middle East, Tehran has lived up to that ideal – by consistently confronting Israel, first, and by defying another perceived enfant terrible: the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet now, nearly six months after a contested presidential election that has riven the country more than at any time since the birth of the Islamic theocracy, a new narrative is arising around the Arab world in which Iran is no longer a political demigod. Beset in recent months by the bloody spectacle of regime enforcers stamping out pro-democracy protests, and by dozens of deaths, torture, and allegations of rape in secret prisons, Iran is losing influence among some of its friends in the region and stiffening opposition among foes.
Many analysts, in fact, believe the autocratic crackdowns in Iran may mark the end of a years-long arc of expanding Iranian and Shiite prominence across a wide swath of the Arab world. More important, they see the fallout coinciding with something far more fundamental: the possibility that the Islamic revolution, 30 years after its inception, is losing its purity and potency – with important implications for the West, notably the US, at a time of geopolitical transition in the Middle East.
"I think we have seen the peak of the Islamic Republic's power in its current configuration," says Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Iran's influence has "slipped very badly," says Mr. Ansari. "Arab states have been lapping it up.... It has had tremendously damaging consequences for [Iran]. In the Persian Gulf, people were genuinely shocked – they never thought that the Iranian regime would treat its own people this way. They thought their governments [would] do that, but this is a revolutionary government. They suddenly realized it is no different."
SHORTLY AFTER IRAN'S disputed presidential vote in June, Sheikh Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, sent a letter of congratulation to Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei. He was one of the first to do so.
But within days, the charismatic Lebanese cleric, one of the most popular politicians in the Middle East, acknowledged that Iran was in the midst of "crisis" and appeared not to back either side. It offered a window into the level of uncertainty and ambiguity felt across much of the region in the wake of the officially proclaimed landslide victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the unrest that followed.
Inside the country, the popular legitimacy so carefully cultivated by the Islamic regime for 30 years began to dissipate like vapor from dry ice. Police, militiamen, and pro-regime vigilantes took to the streets to beat the Iranian "enemies" into submission. Dozens died amid claims of torture and rape, 4,000 were arrested, and 140 were subjected to Stalinesque mass trials and videotaped confessions that supposedly revealed – according to the indictments – a vast foreign conspiracy to topple the regime with a "velvet revolution."