Arab countries: Is Iran's unrest an opportunity or a threat?

If the mass protests in Iran succeed in bringing about change, it could produce a better neighbor – but also set a dangerous precedent for oppressive regimes.

Hamed/ Demotix Images/ AP
Iranian security forces took a break Wednesday in Tehran. Witnesses said riot police fired tear gas and bullets in the air during clashes with protesters who defied a ban on demonstrations.

Iran's Sunni Arab neighbors have long feared its revolutionary rhetoric, its Islamist political style, and its popularity among many of their own citizens for its strident criticism of Israel.

With that background, one would expect the Arab states to be jumping for joy at the political turmoil in Iran, a Shiite oil power.

But so far their response has been muted to non-existent.

Here's why: The mechanism that has created Iran's biggest political crisis since the Islamic revolution in 1979 is street power, the voice of a disenfranchised populace. And while that might eventually deliver a regime in Iran that Arab states would be more comfortable with, it also provides a powerful immediate example of the sort of popular sovereignty that the autocratic Arab regimes fear most.

"I think that most of these governments would be concerned about the images of popular demonstrations against the government because it, in a way, reminds them of their own vulnerability," says political scientist Thomas Mattair, author of the recent book "Global Security Watch: Iran." "Whereas for the Arab public it would be encouraging."

Indeed, it's something of a "Tehran Spring," says Nabil Abdel Fattah at Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-linked think tank in Cairo. "Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other authoritarian regimes fear the effects of what is going on in Iran," particularly since the methods of the protestors are easily replicable, he says. "Shouting 'Allahu akbar' [God is great] from the roof is something people all over the Middle East can do."

Why Arabs are wary of Iran

The Arab states have always been wary of Persian Iran, even when it was ruled by the secular Shah in much the same fashion that most Arab states are governed. But after his overthrow in 1979, the newly minted theocracy engaged in a bloody war with its Arab neighbor Iraq, whose defense was financed by Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf states. In addition, the country's theocratic rulers aggressively sought to export their revolution and their vision of Islam to their neighbors.

Saudi Arabia had particular cause for concern, with a large Shiite population in the Eastern Province, its oil-producing heartland.

While efforts to export the revolution have largely fallen by the wayside, Iran has continued to cultivate links with militant groups like the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. Iran has also aggressively expanded its military and worked on its nuclear program – something the Arab neighbors fear will greatly enhance Iran's prestige and influence in their neighborhood.

How Iran's crisis could benefit Arab governments

But from an Arab perspective, Iran's turmoil has some pluses. Toby Jones, a historian of the Middle East at Rutgers University, says domestic political problems – coupled with Iran's deep economic woes – force the government to focus on matters at home, making them less able to pursue a regional agenda. And while they're wary of Iranians' mass protests succeeding in bringing about change – setting a precedent for their own publics – the possibility that a more accommodating and friendly Iran could emerge is also on the positive side of the ledger.

"I don't think the Arab governments know what they want out of this situation," says Mr. Jones. "In some they have to be worried about another revolution being exported, but if there's real change they might have a more democratic government to deal with as opposed to this whacko regime that everyone says can't be trusted."

Essam El Erian, who heads the political affairs section of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most popular opposition movement, adds that Arab governments simply don't know if what's happening in Iran is to their advantage or not. He also points out that if a moderate who is more open to dialogue with the West replaces President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the regional balance of power may shift at Arabs' expense.

Though Sunni Arab, the Brotherhood has at times spoken approvingly of the Iranian state's Islamic character and of its uncompromising criticism of Israel. Its own political efforts have been constrained by an Egyptian state that, like Iran appears now, holds elections but skews the field heavily against regime opponents.

"Any closer relationship or dialogue between Iran and the West would give them more influence, [an] upper hand in the Arab world and the Gulf region, and that is a threat to the interests of Arab countries," he argues. "For 30 years Iran has tried to export its revolution and it has always failed... but now these protests are like a second wave – only they are focusing on fairness and elections."

Click here to read more about how the balance of power in the region could change.

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