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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    An Iranian woman who supported former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi in the presidential election covered her face with his picture at a gathering in June.
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    Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the disputed election in a landslide.
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    Iranian schoolgirls marked the 30th anniversary of the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4 by hoisting flags and posters of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini.
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    An antigovernment protester ran away from security during a demonstration to counter the pro-regime rallies on Nov. 4.
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    Hassan Nasrallah, the charismatic Hezbollah leader in Lebanon, is a close ally of Iran. He acknowledged after the election that Iran was in the midst of a 'crisis.' Here he is shown broadcasting on a giant screen from a secret location.
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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.

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.

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"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."

For a regime that had always trumpeted its quasi-democratic credentials, Iran's postelection tactics caught many outside the country by surprise.

"Iran's supporters in the region were wagering before and during the elections that the Islamic state would teach the world a lesson in democracy and present a model of Islamist rule," wrote the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper. "They have lost their wager, and certainly Islamists in Arab countries who aspire to participate in the political game and come to power have lost the most."

Another Al-Hayat story was equally blunt: "The truth of the matter is that revolutionary movements that establish a new legitimacy from illegitimacy carry early on fertile seeds for its demise."

Egypt's state-run Al-Ahram newspaper decried the "democratic outrage" and said the Iranian regime should "stop the wave of violence and blood and listen to the viewpoints of the Iranian opposition that rejects the [election] results."

Many Arabs, to be sure, never bought into the Iranian mystique, and their indifference or even hostility toward the regime in Tehran has only solidified since Mr. Ahmadinejad's disputed landslide victory.

"I have always been against him," says Omar Beydoun, dicing a joint of lamb for grilling in his shop in Beirut's Sunni neighborhood of Qasqas. "Ahmadinejad is causing trouble for the whole region, here in Lebanon with Hezbollah, meddling with the Palestinians, and trying to spread Shiism among Arabs. What do I care about internal fighting in Iran? If it's not Ahmadinejad, it will be someone just as bad."

Mr. Beydoun is hardly alone in a region where sporadic support for Iran among the masses was rarely matched by Arab governments, which have long been wary of Iranian motives and of spreading Shiite influence. True, for several years Iran's strategic star was definitely rising, even as America's appeared to be falling. This was especially true after Hezbollah declared victory over US-supported Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war, and the insurgency in Iraq threatened the American occupation, inflicting a rising toll in US lives in 2006 and 2007.

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.

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."

More broadly, she says, the aim of hard-liners – Ayatollah Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and a group of neoconservative politicians backed up by the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij ideological militia – is to destroy all reformist trends in Iran, as well as any "softer" approach to Islamic government.

"After 30 years, [the Islamic system] is losing, it's getting tired, it's getting old. It no longer has any new ideas, any new strategy to offer. It's just fundamentalist heated speech, and nothing more than that," says Mr. Torfeh. "Khomeini was very creative in his own way, in the way he presented Islam to the world. But this is now just the right- wing end of a movement, the fundamentalist end. I think these are the final stages; it's going more and more to the right, as if it was exiting that way."

The official rhetoric emanating from the regime since the election has remained strident. Khamenei has declared Ahmadinejad's victory a "divine assessment." A host of election complaints and anecdotal evidence of widespread fraud – along with official results that Iran analysts say are virtually impossible to achieve in Iran's mix of ethnic, social, and political constituencies – have not caused the regime to back down. Khamenei, in fact, has decreed the refusal to accept the election results as the "biggest crime."

The opposition remains active and defiant. It has been marking up currency notes with slogans supporting Mir Hossein Mousavi, the moderate challenger who declared the election was stolen, as well as with pictures of a bloodied Neda Soltan, the 19-year-old student shot dead by a Basij gunman. It is also painting opposition graffiti on streets and in classrooms.

ONE TEST OF IRAN'S current standing in the region lies among the mosques and militias of southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah has been watching the turbulence more closely than any of Tehran's allies.

Hezbollah was founded with Iranian help in response to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It is the only organization outside Iran that adheres strictly to Ayatollah Khomeini's system of velayat-e faqih, leadership by an infallible supreme theologian.

Iran still provides significant funding and weaponry to Hezbollah, and all members must swear allegiance to the Islamic system led today by Khamenei.

Still, as an example of the damage done to Iran's image, Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, has noted Iran's "internal problems." Significant, too, the ultraconservative Tehran Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, related in a mid-October sermon how Nasrallah told him "that following [the postelection violence] he has received phone calls from all over the world. They expressed displeasure and were asking him questions. They were telling him that all the world's oppressed and liberal-minded people have pinned their hopes on Iran."

One week prior to Iran's June vote, Hezbollah itself suffered a blow in Lebanon's general election. The bloc that it led was expected to gain a majority of seats in parliament, but, in fact, held steady at 45 percent, against the US-backed bloc that won the remainder. Another blow struck the militia's well-honed reputation for incorruptibility when a Lebanese businessman close to Hezbollah was caught in a vast Bernard Madoff-style scheme to rip-off investors.

"I think you can crudely – and I would be very careful to push this too far – map some of the twists and turns that Iran has taken over the last few years, alongside those that Hezbollah has taken, because we've seen some similar dynamics," says Nicholas Noe, the editor in chief of the Beirut-based Mideastwire.com.

He and others believe that just as Iran's credentials have been eroded since the election, so has – to a lesser degree – Hezbollah's self-assigned role as the just leader of the Lebanese Shiites and as a member of the "axis of resistance" that stands up to Israel and the US.

Indeed, Beirut's leftist As-Safir newspaper predicted that "Hezbollah's patriotism will increase more than ever, based on its increased need to broaden its popular base and ... to compensate for the loss of a decisive Iranian ally."

Yet the impact of the damage done to "Brand Iran" – to use Mr. Noe's phrase – may be limited, both in Lebanon and in the larger Arab world. For one thing, only a minority of people in Lebanon, even among Shiites, look to Iran for spiritual guidance. For another, many of Tehran's closest allies – Hezbollah, Shiite parties in Iraq, Hamas – are already well established militarily and politically.

Then, too, as long as Iran keeps sending money and weaponry, the ties will remain strong no matter what happens on Tehran's streets. "We don't really care about the internal political situation in Iran," says Abu Hassan, a unit commander in the military wing of Hezbollah, sipping a cup of sweetened tea in Beirut's southern suburbs. "It doesn't matter to us who is the president, so long as they continue to support us. We don't interfere in their politics."

On the West Bank, the admiration for Iran remains even tighter. Despite official hostility by the Western-backed Palestinian Authority for Tehran's support of Hamas, the view of the election crisis among many is almost a facsimile of the hard-line view in Tehran. "Ahmadinejad wants to build power for himself and his country. And I think it's in his right," says Sheikh Mahmoud Musleh, a Hamas parliament member in Ramallah, who was jailed for two years after his election in 2006.

Leaders like Ahmadinejad should serve as a "model" for Arab nations, says Mr. Musleh, twiddling two rubber bands as if they were worry beads. He blames foreign "interests" for fomenting the unrest. "I can feel how the Western intelligence is seeping through the streets of Iran and disrupting harmony," he says. "It isn't in our interests to side with one side or the other.... Our interest is to have good relations with whoever rules Iran."

That message is even stronger in the warren of the Jalazoun refugee camp on the edge of Ramallah, where graffiti showing machine guns and the Palestinian flag dominates. Men gathered around a television praise Iran. "Any enemy of Israel's is a friend of the Palestinians," says Abu Mohammed. "In any case, not one Arab country is capable of fighting Israel in the way that Iran is able."

WITH ALL THE internal strife in Iran, all this poses a central question for those who rule in Tehran: How much should they continue to focus on exporting the revolution? During the postelection tumult, the demonstrators made clear their wariness over the regime's costly support of resisting the US, Israel, and the West on distant battlefields – especially at a time of torpor in the Iranian economy.

Their slogan: "Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon. May my life be sacrificed for Iran."

Yet there are both political and strategic reasons for the regime to be sending money and guns beyond its own borders. Khamenei, for one, is known to have appreciated the goodwill that came to Iran from the Arab street during the first four years of the Ahmadinejad presidency.

One veteran analyst in Tehran says that while he understands the desire of many disgruntled Iranians to focus internally, the regime also has a strong rationale for continuing to export its influence. "They think we have enemies in the world, and it's better to move away the hot flash points from national borders, and keep our enemies busy further away," he says.

With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process stalling, Iran might also find new receptivity around the region to reenergizing the axis of resistance, which could serve to take the focus off its own election fiasco. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has suggested that "resistance" might be the only way, while Nasrallah was quoted recently as saying: "What we see is absolute American commitment to Israeli interests ... while disregarding the dignity of feeling of the Arab and Muslim people."

Some conservative websites inside and outside the country are, in fact, urging Iran to revivify its bellicosity with Israel and the West. "They are revising this idea of exporting the revolution," says Torfeh at the University of London. "Some people are saying, 'We should rekindle a second stage of exporting Islam to the world, and work on regenerating our appeal.' So, obviously, they are a little concerned about the impact of recent months."

Yet the deeper question is which direction the country should be going in altogether. In Iran, even the meaning of the legacy of Khomeini – often called "imam" by the faithful in Iran – is the subject of sharp debate. Would the father of Iran's revolution have accepted a natural and moderate "evolution," in order for it to remain vibrant and viable, as reformists and many protesters believe?

Or are the hard-line values honed by the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and a strict spiritual interpretation – beliefs that exclude nonbelievers from government and permit the beating of "enemies," even if they are fellow Iranians – the ones to pursue?

Paradoxically, both sides see a larger rationale for their positions. "Of all these people in prison, most consider themselves followers of the imam [Khomeini]," notes the Tehran analyst. "And all those who are torturing them also consider themselves followers of the imam."

• Contributing to this report were Nicholas Blanford in Beirut, Lebanon, and Josh Mitnick from Ramallah, in the West Bank.

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