Iran’s democracy in the eyes of the Arab world

The historical Shiite-Sunni division in the Arab world has often colored Arab media commentary and analysis about Iran, and not since the 1979 Iranian Revolution has the Arab media been so focused on Iran. MENASSAT takes a look at the Arab media coverage two weeks after the heavily contested presidential elections.

BEIRUT, June 24, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the Arab world - or at least the Arab regimes - have been obsessing over Iran's “exporting of the revolution” and the implications it would have on the Arab world.

The alliance between Syria, Iran and Sunni Hamas and Shiite Hezbollah, two movements that are fighting Israel, are opposed to the Arab regimes' desire to avoid military actions and reach a settlement with Israel, as it would unlikely be a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

What is worst for these moderate regimes is that the support for the resistance movements is fruitful and is changing many facts on the ground.

The biggest fear of what is called the “moderate Arab axis” (Egypt, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others) is the accomplishments concerning the Arab- Israeli conflict by those described as “the tools of the Mullah regime,” (Hamas and Hezbollah). Oddly enough, the excuse these regimes use against the absence of democracy in Iran is the Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Scholars), while these same countries don’t even organize municipal elections or have been ruled by the same leaders for decades. 

The Arabs are not impartial concerning the situation in Iran. The moderate Arab regimes have been promoting “the Iranian danger” in the region as an alternative to the Israeli danger. The Americans have embraced this political game as well, in an attempt to create an alternative “enemy” for the Arabs, to shift international focus away from the racist Zionist regime, established on the historic grounds of Palestine. In fact, we don’t really know who invented the game of the imminent Iranian danger, but the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the Jordanian King Abdullah were both clever in jumping on the Shiite threat bandwagon.

On the other hand, it isn’t comfortable for Hezbollah in Lebanon to, for example, watch the Iranian police’s shoot-to-kill approach towards the demonstrators in Tehran, shortly after the Lebanese parliamentary elections when the party was under harsh criticism by the media, which described Hezbollah as a blind Iranian tool executing the orders of the “al-Wali al-Faqih” (Guardian Scholar) in Iran.

But what most critics who support the US policies in the region fail to mention, is the fact that these moderate Arab countries don’t have democracy themselves –  real or fake. And where there is no dictatorial rule, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan, we witness fighting, sectarianism and division.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of al-Quds al-Arabi in London, writes about the presidential elections in Iran. “This democratic example, despite our reservations to some of its aspects, is absent in most of our Arab countries, mainly the major ones. We say with distress over our deteriorating living conditions, our stolen riches and our abused national and human right. We don’t support the Iranian project, as much as we are frustrated with the absence of an Arab agenda, because of the moderate countries’ dedication to killing this agenda with loud and clear instructions from the US. The role of the moderate axis has become to sabotage such efforts and is supporting the wars of others, as opposed to being constructive. Hence, the non-Arab plans prosper in the region, and it is not surprising that all the great democratic powers in the region (Turkey, Iran, Israel) are not Arabs.”

The legitimacy of the regime

Do Arabs really think that the Islamic Republic in Iran, despite all the criticism- sometimes truthful, sometimes false - will collapse under the weight of these street protests? Some definitely hope so, but pragmatism dictates the views of authoritarian oppressive regimes, even when talking about other equally authoritarian oppressive regimes.

In the Saudi-funded conservative newspaper, al-Hayat Ghassan Charbel wrote, “It is hastily assuming that the current turmoil on the Iranian street is tolling the bells of the death of a regime that came to life three decades ago. The regime is not isolated from the people inside the country. And we can’t assume that the great number of supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a complete fraud. We shouldn’t forget the presence of the Supreme Guide, the record of the diverse regime institutions, and that the regime is not paralyzed or no longer capable of making decisions. We shouldn’t forget that the military-security institution didn’t show any sign of weakness or division. We are facing a coherent system even if it seems confused in treating the crisis.”

“We have thought for years that Iran is a strong and stable country and that its main problem lies in that it still hasn’t recognized what it considers as its main role in the region. The crisis showed that this country, which covers itself with a huge arsenal and lives the nuclear dream, is actually facing stress in its society, and that its internal situation is less coherent than we thought.”

“Most Arab writers and politicians know that what is currently happening in Iran comes from inside the regime. No one, except those who want to use or invest in the Iranian crisis, believes in the end of the Islamic Republic, despite the talks not only concerning the regime crisis, but also the return of the speech concerning “the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih” with the interference of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montadhiri for the first time calling for a three-days mourning period and warning that “resisting the people’s demands is religiously forbidden.”

Ayatollah Montadhiri was close to Imam al-Khomeini and was a candidate to succeed him in power, before he was subject to house arrest and banned from the politics for his opposition to Wilayat al-Faqih. These statements, at this time specifically, suggest the possibility that the conflict will turn from purely political to possibly challenging the theological foundations of the Islamic regime.

Hazem Saghieh wrote in al-Hayat on June 21, “Now it seems as if the Khomenei revolution and authority are facing an existentialist challenge amidst a severe economic crisis, an Obama climate that ridicules mobilization against “the Great Satan,” and youth desires that resulted from containment – armed with modern communication means and ideas, most importantly that of freedom, the source of which is the satanic West.”

The dynamics of the Iranian regime, the posts and the history of the candidates, their relations to each other and the centers of power in the regime are all clean and defined. Is Hashimi Rafsanjani the former “financier of the revolution” and the financier of Mir Mousavi, standing against the Islamic republic and Wilayat al-Faqih? The new aspect in this picture is the enthusiastic and insisting demonstrations, despite the number of the victims that fell. But what really has changed in Iranian society, or the third generation of the revolution, as some describe it, is now clear.

Hossam Itani of al-Hayat also spoke of the “deep reactions beneath the apparent calm surface of a united regime behind its revolutionary leadership. There is an undeniable congestion in the clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces and in the volume of the demonstrations against what is believed to be a clear fraud in the elections results. The regime will most likely lose a wide number of supporters among students, academics, intellects and professionals.”

The role of defeated candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi, in the newspapers opposed to Iran, is even perceived with pragmatism. Abdul Rahman Al-Rached writes in as-Sharq al-Awsat, “His opposition to Ahmadinejad and his disobedience to the Supreme Guide’s orders, don’t mean that we are facing a man rebelling against the regime with a revolutionary program, outside the umbrella of the Iranian Islamic mind. In fact, Mousavi is the son of the revolution and the builder of the regime, and despite his moderate stances he doesn’t sail far from the general politics of the Supreme Guide and President Ahmadinejad. He is honest in approving the nuclear program.”

Iran and the Arab world: a tense relation

In an explosive Middle East, the stability of certain countries, including Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, is directly related to the political decisions of the major regional and international players. And Iran is definitely a country that is being watched, as some see the loss of stability in Iran and something that will affect the Middle East as a whole.

Abdel Bari Atwan wrote in al-Quds al-Arabi, “Undermining Iran's stability and spreading troubles in the country increases the possibilities of it turning into a failed state, like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and probably Somalia too, because of its complicated ethnic and sectarian mosaic. This cannot be in the interest of the region's countries and in particular the Arab ones.”

In a similar context, Syrian newspapers also used this analysis where al-Thawra’s editor-in-chief, Asaad Aboud said in his editorial last Sunday, “Iran is a fundamental base to build a Levant that knows its own interest according to the capacities of its peoples and countries. It is a plan for friendship and brotherhood with all the Arab states without any differentiation, especially that through dialogue, any misunderstanding between Iran and any Arab country could be erased, and that it bases its policies on its hostility towards Israel. Are the Arab countries not comfortable with this?”

In fact, Arab states are weary of the Iranian connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict, spun over 3 decades of the Islamic revolution’s life. Now tangible, effective and starting to bear fruits, starting with the strategic alliance with Syria, which provides support for the resistance movements against Israel in the region, to the Iranian stances on Israel in the international scene, over-shadowing the traditional Arab role, meanwhile improving its relationship with Turkey- the only other powerful strategic player in the region, which, if allied with Iran, could lead to a region absent of any major Arab power.

Iran’s relation with the West doesn’t provide a space for Arab countries to be highly involved. It is fully confident in itself and its regime in the first place, and in the alliances and different roles that it established, with patience and attention. But one, who thinks that that holding the right cards is enough, is often mistaken.

Arab regimes fear that Iran will replace them with the US, if a future deal is made between the two countries. Thus, unrest in Iran is often welcomed in certain Arab circles. If the regime in Iran were changed, preferably without any problems, it would make many in the Arab world dance of joy.

In newspaper as-Sharq al-Awsat  Mamoun Fandy wrote that he considers the Iranian regime expired.

“The regime also seems confused with how to confront the youth demonstrations in the streets. The cell phones that organized the protests led by the opposition in Iran confused the Supreme Guide, and that was clear in Friday’s sermon, which the Wali Faqih gave before the believers. A sermon that included a threat to the opposition with bloodshed, also contained some hostility towards the western media specifically, as well as some praise and encouragement to Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Hashimi Rafsanjani who has the power to dismiss the Supreme Guide. Rafsanjani’s joining the opposition, suggested that the Supreme Guide is scared, and not as strong as he tries to seem when threatening the opposition.”

Though an uncommon opinion in the Arab world, Fandy mentions the possibility of a new leadership in Iran. “Apparently the situation in Iran is out of control. Neither the Supreme Guide, nor the opposition leaders are controlling the streets. It is possible that the demonstrations will bring their new serious leaders.”

Jihad al-Zein wrote in Lebanese An-Nahar, “This time, the “regime” might have went too far with the pressures on the voters or got involved in some major violations of the voting and the results. But this doesn’t mean Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t win. The excess of violations is a result of a presidential decision to prevent any possible surprise that could lead to the victory of Mir Hussein Mousavi, this means preventing another first-round -“Khatami” win. This also means that the “regime” took a strategic decision to hand the conservatives, and not the moderates, the responsibility of negotiating with the West concerning major “national security” issues: including nuclear development, Iran’s position in the region and Iraq.”

As if to say these are the issues the Supreme Guide is concerned about, while leaving the other issues for the candidates to solve and debate?
Sateh Noureddine wrote in Lebanese As-Safir that things went out of control in Iran. “It was difficult for the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to hold onto another 4-year term for Ahmadinejad, unless he decided to throw his country in bloodshed and chaos, and jeopardize his political and religious position which, until this moment at least, is still capable of containing the crisis, despite the violent accusations and the serious doubts raised in the streets, which deprived him from his alleged “holiness.”

Shiism and the Arab leaders

Some Arab countries, specifically those with a Sunni leadership, have felt the danger of the so-called Shiite threat since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and don’t refrain from attacking Iran with its Shiite authority and majority. Many Shiites in the Arab World have tense relations with their leaders due to the historic oppression of Shiites in Sunni regimes since the religious division between the two sects.

For the Shiites, the Islamic Revolution was an opportunity for them to move past the Sultan’s ruling and the loyalty to the Sunni Wali. Even the Shiite religious traditions were sometimes oppressed. The Islamic Revolution in Iran brought to light the Shiite ability to rule, after being in the shadow of the Sunni political monopoly since the Ottoman Empire.

In Egypt, a country that has tense relations with Iran, Wael Abdul Fattah wrote in al-Dustor, “In the Sunni history, religion was often used as an element of stability, and sometimes as an excuse to despotism.” According to Abdul Fattah, the scholars of the sultan used Quranic verses to differentiate between the classes and spread their rule among the population.

He added “Shiism is somehow the most revolutionary, and is freer than the rigid structures that relate to the birth of Sunni in the heart of the Bedouin culture which isn’t open to diversity. Shiism appeared from different currents and ideas, and was tinted by the Christian, Farsi and other ancient cultures.”

The power struggle between the two led to the early division between Sunni and Shiite in the Muslim history. To counter the despotism of the leaders, the Shiites referred to Ijtihad (the interpretation of the Islamic law). The Iranians, or at least those demonstrating now, consider Ahmadinejad an unjust ruler, where screams of “down with the dictator” were heard in Tehran despite the media suppression and blackout. Today, the post-revolution generation refers to Ijtihad, defying the ban of the Supreme Leader of the revolution to protest, and perhaps seeing previous actions of Imams that fell but didn’t keep quiet in the face of unjust rulers, as inspiration.