Iranians marked the 32nd anniversary of their Islamic revolution on Friday, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming that Iran was the vanguard of a popular and divine "awakening” now under way “in every corner of this planet.”
State television showed split-screen images juxtaposing the annual rally in Tehran with Egyptians massing in Cairo, as Mr. Ahmadinejad said that Iran’s 1979 revolution was inspiring a “new Middle East” with popular upheavals.
Iran’s revolution was “the starting point of the rule of God over the earth,” Ahmadinejad proclaimed. “It’s a long path to fight against evil-doers; everyone must be aware of Satanic deceptions” of the United States, Israel, and the West, he said; they would soon be “destroyed” with divine assistance, as Iran led humankind to “summits of perfection.”
Iran's 1979 revolution electrified the Middle East by toppling a US-backed dictator with people power. Ahmadinejad’s speech, given just hours before Egypt's Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, is the latest in a series of attempts by senior Iranian officials to take ownership of the popular unrest spreading through Arab nations.
Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, many Arabs note the irony of Iran giving advice, when it crushed its own pro-democracy movement in 2009.
In Sunni Egypt especially, protesters and the embattled government alike have dismissed any connection to Shiite Iran, past or present, as inappropriate and unwanted. One Egyptian minister told Iran’s supreme leader to hear calls for freedom in Iran, instead of “distracting the Iranian people’s attention by hiding behind [events] in Egypt.”
And there is trouble for Iran at home, too, where Iranians often express disappointment that the revolution has failed to live up to its promises of freedom and greater social equality.
Paranoid about change
The result is that Iran’s leaders “are paranoid” of similar change in Iran, says a veteran analyst in Tehran, who could not be named. “When they think about it in a serious way, and distance themselves from the propaganda they are making, they notice that the divisions [in Iran] are huge.”
“The potential is there and it is real, that if they loosen the grip they have, voices will start to express themselves – and they are resisting that so strongly,” says the analyst. “They don’t even allow for a small divergence from the official line. They see, in the smallest diversion, Satanic influences.… of course, [this] is not healthy.”
Iran’s 2009 mass unrest erupted when the opposition Green Movement declared fraud and more than 1 million people protested the official reelection victory of Ahmadinejad. The scenes closely resemble the current street clashes and public defiance in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world.
No permit to march on Feb. 14
Iran’s demonstrations were brutally squashed by pro-regime militia. Those actions still divide the nation and ruling elite. So Iran’s embattled opposition heard the sound of hypocrisy on Friday, when Ahmadinejad advised Arab protesters they had the “right to be free … the right to express your views, and to choose your government.”
Green Movement leaders themselves requested a permit to stage a Feb. 14 march in solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian people, but were denied. It is not certain if the first opposition call to protest in a year will be called off – or if the fall of Mubarak may rekindle public protest in Iran.
In a bid to embrace the pro-democracy rise in Egypt, while rejecting it in Iran, the hard-line Kayhan newspaper recently gave this version of reality: “In the case of Iran, the dictators were in the streets.”
“In both cases, it’s a struggle against dictators,” says the Tehran analyst. “It’s an amazing statement. They have created this analysis and have bought it … that  was a conspiracy to overthrow this popular regime, and these [protesters] denied the result of an election and therefore are anti-democratic. So they are dictators.”
Green Movement leaders say it was their 2009 uprising, in fact, that helped prompt a “new discourse” across the region. Iranian hard-liners have “damaged” the ideals of the 1979 revolution, they say, by “imagining their power as a splendid symbol of the divine authority while it was not supported by the people.”
Opposition: Iran now has 'totalitarian' quality
Opposition chiefs and former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi – a cleric put under house arrest on Thursday – said in a joint statement this week that Iran's leaders now had the “totalitarian” quality of past Iranian dictators.
“Unquestioning obedience before power has become divine and godly,” they said, decrying the “oppressive and anti-religion actions” of the government. “This religion has taught us not to bow to oppressive individuals, for if we do so, we will be deprived of God’s help.”
According to US-based sociologist Said Arjomand, the decision by Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to support Ahmadinejad and dismiss fraud charges in 2009 was a “costly mistake” that “undermined what had appeared to be a robust, post-revolutionary course for the first and only theocracy in modern history.”
“The cries of ‘God is Great!’ have now been overtaken by chants of ‘Death to the dictator!’” Mr. Arjomand wrote in a multi-author collection of essays published in the US Friday and titled “The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future." “Deep down, [regime leaders] know there is no conspiracy. Their fear is grounded in what they see in front of them: the forward march of history.”
Yet laying claim to divine support – and the “true” mantle of the Islamic revolution – has long been a game played between Iran’s hard-line leadership and its critics.
Ahmadinejad on Friday went further than usual in stating that the “global revolution” now under way was being “managed” behind the scenes by the Shiite Messiah – the Twelfth Imam Mahdi who is meant to return one day to bring justice to the world.
Ahmadinejad is a firm believer that the Mahdi’s return is imminent, a position scorned by many clerics as a superstition. “You can see the hands of the Imam of Time [the Mahdi] managing this revolution,” the president said, according to a simultaneous translation by state-run PressTV.
Some Iranians at the rally in Tehran carried Egyptian flags with a smaller Iranian flag set in the middle.
One young man wore the scarf of a basiji militiaman, and linked the father of Iran’s revolution with current Arab unrest. He told PressTV: “These events in Egypt show that Imam Khomeini’s theories and ideas after more than 30 years is going to be realized today. I think the new Middle East is going to be born.”
And yet Iran has sought to control the message from Cairo. State broadcasters have headlined the Egyptian protests for days, ever since Ayatollah Khamenei encouraged them as part of a worldwide “Islamic Awakening.”
But the BBC Persian television channel – which is illegal but widely watched in Iran – was jammed starting Thursday night, during continuous coverage that included call-in comparisons between Egypt and Iran. In a statement, the BBC cited “the impact of this coverage” for the jamming.
PressTV preferred to cast events in Egypt another way, with comparisons only to 1979 – and not to 2009.
“The Egyptians, like the Iranians – like all the people in the region – want independence from American hegemony, they want the West, they want the overlords, to leave,” Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran University professor who frequently argues that Iran’s reelection of Ahmadinejad was legitimate, told PressTV.
“The courageous nature of the uprising in Egypt reminds the Iranian people of what earlier generations [of Iranians] went through in overthrowing the shah,” said Mr. Marandi.