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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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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.

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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.