Watching in Silence
The Iranian elections have raised more than a stir in the Arab media, and vibrated strongly in Arab capitals.
Spearheaded by the Saudi channel Al-Arabiyya, there are several outlets anticipating a complete breakdown in Iran, with extensive coverage of the disturbances since election results showed that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has won another term in office. A more conservative approach is being taken by media outlets that are close to Syria, Hizbullah, and Qatar. Al-Jazeera, for example, is keeping its distance to both Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hussein Mousawi. Hizbullah’s Al-Manar TV is displaying a clear bias towards Iranian officialdom, strongly in favour of the Grand Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei.
Syria’s state-run press also originally covered the events at arm’s length, but then welcomed Ahmadinejad’s victory as final and has largely ignored all the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations that have gripped Iran since mid-June. That was not the case with independent dailies, which covered the developing story with reports, all taken from the wires, with very little personal input. President Bashar Al-Asad was one of the first world leaders to congratulate the Iranian President, sending him a letter that promised continued co-operation between their countries as they are “both pursuing a just and comprehensive peace in the region and in the world at large.”
Congratulations from Syria
Abdulsalam Haykal, a Syrian technologist and media guru who publishes a host of Arabic and English magazines, noted: “As world governments strive to penalise the Iranians and corner them in a tight spot, as wrongdoers, they fail to remember that Iran, unlike the rest of the Middle East, boasts some of the most advanced institutions in education, science, and research.” Haykal, who is a member of the board of trustees at the prestigious American University of Beirut stated: “Leading universities around the world acknowledge that Iranian engineers and scientists are among the brightest and most prolific in the world. Even when we have our disagreements with Iran, we should keep in mind that they are a nation that has provided prosperity to its citizens, and a maturing democratic model of governance.” And Haykal added: “The protests, unusual in that part of the world, attest to that, and to how technology-savvy the Iranian youth are.”
Qatari Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani also came out defending Iranian democracy, saying that despite its setbacks, it was healthier than any system in the Arab world. He mistakenly claimed that since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 Iran had had four presidents - more than any Arab country. The actual number, however, was six not four. His Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Al-Thani spoke shortly afterwards to Al-Jazeera noting: “We have to consider this as an internal affair because each country and its domestic affairs should be respected."
Iran - the most democratic country in the region ?
Both camps, those rooting for Mousawi and those rallying behind Ahmadinejad, are worried at what the future holds for Iran. Many in the Gulf, who have feared Iran for years, are bracing themselves for a complete breakdown and perceive similarities between what is happening today, and what happened in Iran back in 1979.
The only similarity however is demonstrators on the streets and preachers calling for prayer. Those who think the current events follow the lines of what happened in 1979 will have a big disappointment. The demonstrations will gradually fade because there is no united and clear leadership. There are fundamental differences as to objectives, background, and leadership between 1979 and 2009.
Back then, the Iranians had the strong and charismatic leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini. He had a clear sense of purpose, i.e. to bring down the Shah. Ask ordinary Iranians today, and you will not find a similarly uniform response. Actually, nobody will say that they are out to bring down the Revolution. Some say they want to purify the Revolution. Others want to bring down Ahmadinejad - without actually saying that they want to replace him by Mousawi, who, back in the 1980s, during his time as prime minister, was not a great democrat. Mousawi, wrongly called an “opposition leader” by the Western press, is a product of the Revolution, but does not come close to Khomeini’s charisma.
2009 - a re-run of 1979 ?
What really matters when comparing 1979 to the present is the fact that the Shah only fell once Iranian soldiers stopped firing at the demonstrators. Any regime, no matter how strong, will collapse when its soldiers refuse to obey orders and side with the people. By all accounts, that is not the case in Iran today - and there is no indication whatsoever that the Iranian Army is about to rebel against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad or Grand Ayatollah Khamenei.
Arab supporters of Ahmadinejad believe that “the West” has interfered in Iran - a tacit reference to the United States. Several colourful theories are being floated by analysts, journalists, and commentators. One is that the US fuelled the entire ordeal, to divert Iran’s attention from the withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities and towns, complete by June 30, 2009. They believe that otherwise Iran would have supported guerrilla attacks on the withdrawing US troops, thus taking revenge on Barack Obama for the mess left behind by George W. Bush.
A distracted Iran
Iran has indeed been distracted from events that usually mean a lot to decision-makers in Tehran. High on the list are the situation in Iraq and developments following the elections in Lebanon. There, Iran’s allies, the Hizbullah-led opposition, did not win a majority in the Lebanese Parliament, as many had expected, securing only 58 out of 128 seats. Although Iran’s ally, Nabih Berri, has been re-elected as speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Tehran would certainly not welcome the recent appointment of Saad Harriri, one of its most vocal opponents, as prime minister.
But the fact of the matter is that, right now, the Iranian authorities are too busy to mind any of the above. The priority is to get their own house in order, and Iran’s allies in the region are being completely silent, waiting for it to settle its internal affairs, before seeking its help.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria. He is a writer, university professor, and historian based in Damascus, and author of Steel & Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria 1900-2000, 2006.