One of Tehran’s prime goals in recent weeks has been to paint the United States as the only reason authoritarian regimes exist in the region, as it bids for support from the disaffected, a policy it has pursued for three decades.
In a meeting Tuesday with the speaker of the Ecuadorian Congress, Saeed Jalili, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, said, “The US is bogged down in a quagmire by supporting dictatorships. Its vain efforts will further entangle it.” He called the United States the “biggest sponsor of tyrannical regimes.… Washington, through hypocrisy, cannot conceal the fact that it has been supporting such dictatorships and using coercion against peoples for decades.”
But Jalili said nothing about Iran’s staunch support of the Assad regime in Syria, perhaps the single tightest dictatorship in the entire Middle East.
The Islamic Republic has actually been highly selective in what uprisings it has supported and when in the current turmoil across the Arab world.
It said nothing about the uprising in Tunisia until after President Ben Ali fled the country.
It danced around the Egyptian uprising for weeks until finally endorsing it when it became apparent to the world that President Hosni Mubarak could not survive.
Last Wednesday, officials in Tehran began speaking out loudly in favor of the uprising in Bahrain. In this case, they spoke up when the outcome was far from certain. But in Bahrain, the uprising is a Shia rebellion against the minority Sunni rulership of the island state. It appeared to some that the political leadership in the Islamic Republic was responding to appeals from the clergy to show unity with their Shia brethren in Bahrain.
The firm position taken by the Iranian authorities risks very sour relations with Bahrain if the rebels do not win. But Tehran may have calculated that the government of Bahrain never trusted Iran anyway and that the kind words periodically exchanged were mere fluff so that Iran stood to lose little by gambling on the opposition.
Every day, volumes were spoken about the uprising in Bahrain. But there was silence about what was going on elsewhere in the Arab world.
The selectivity of the Iranian policy became clear when the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the state news agency, ran a story last Friday that said: “The United Nations human rights chief has voiced alarm at the excessive use of force by authorities in Bahrain.”
That was true as far as it went. But the statement from Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, actually “condemned as illegal and excessively heavy-handed” the responses of five governments in addition to Bahrain’s—Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen AND the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But Iran did not choose to criticize any of those other governments as of last Friday. In the next few days, the uprising in Libya grew in intensity. Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhdhafi sent planes to bomb his opposition. By Monday, the opposition was reported to be in control of Benghazi.
The next day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast shifted gears and backed the Libyan rebels on the eighth day of their uprising. “The Islamic Republic of Iran deems the uprising of the Libyan people and their rightful demands to be in line with the region’s Islamic awakening and follows the developments in the country with concern. The news of aerial attacks on protesters, residential areas and mass killings of innocent people has caused concern and consternation. It is expected that international organizations and assemblies take immediate and effective measures to stop it [the violence].”
But as of Tuesday, Iran still had nothing to say about protests rumbling through Algeria, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and in northern Iraq, where the Kurdish enclave leadership is being challenged in the streets.
Apart for Bahrain, where the issue is the Sunni-Shia divide, Iran’s position appears to be based solely on whether it thinks the rebels will prevail, not on ideology.
Despite reporting in the Western and Arab media that sees the overwhelming bulk of the rebels as concerned about jobs and corruption rather than Sharia law or clerical rule, Iran has continued to tell its people that the uprisings mimic Iran’s own 1979 revolution and represent an “Islamic awakening.”
A third interpretation was provided by Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who proclaimed last week that his website was “significantly influential to what happened in Tunisia.”