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.
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At the time, Iranian officials crowed that the United States had been rendered harmless and near "death." They said Western democracy had "failed." Ahmadinejad himself, in an Egyptian poll, was found to be the second most popular politician in the region, after Mr. Nasrallah.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet the fascination with Iran didn't always stem from anything noble going on in Tehran and, in many quarters, was short-lived.
"I think what happened in 2006 [with the pro-Ahmadinejad polling], the people are so anti-Israel that they would even consider being pro-Iranian very briefly because of the fate of the Palestinians, or in this case the fate of the Lebanese," says Joost Hiltermann, the deputy Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group in Washington. "I think that there is no genuine support for Iran in the Arab street."
How Iran is viewed in the region has always been important to the Islamic regime. Thirty years ago, it decreed "export" of the revolution a priority. Islamic causes such as Palestinian statehood and fighting Israel – as well as fighting "imperialist Great Satan" America and the Soviet Union – would be embraced and supported.
Since then, even as Shiite Iran sought to support local Shiite Muslim minorities across the region, Tehran was always careful to cultivate a Pan-Islamic appeal. A RAND Corp. analysis done for the US government and released last May, just weeks before the election, noted that Iran viewed Arab public opinion as an "important vector for power projection." Perhaps presciently, it added that popular Arab support remained a "fickle strategic resource" that could "rapidly swing from praise to condemnation."
Even within the Iranian hierarchy, some admit the damage done by the postelection tumult. Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard force, which took control of security in Tehran days after the vote, has claimed the unrest brought the Islamic system to the "edge of a downfall" and "dealt a blow to the credibility of the regime."
Outside the country, experts see the violence as part of a deeper autocratic tilt that was already undermining the government's standing.
Tehran's "influence must be waning, because Iran is more and more viewed as quite a fundamentalist, authoritarian Islamic regime, and not [one] that wants to protect the rights of Muslims," says Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iran expert at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "After all, the people who are suffering in the prisons in Iran are also Muslims. The people who were killed in the demonstrations were also Muslim ... so I think their reputation is somewhat tarnished."