The Arab Rising – Part II

Anger rages in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and throughout the Middle East. Protesters plead for international support in their demands for democracy and economic reforms, and this YaleGlobal series examines the implications of the Arab upsurge. Iran, long intent on promoting Islamic governance throughout the Middle East, has been swift to grab the opportunity offered by the turmoil, explain Jamsheed K. Choksy and Carol E. B. Choksy, who both teach at Indiana University, in the second article of the series. Proudly claiming a policy of “supporting resistance” in the Middle East, Iran issues news feeds, scholarships and social-media posts to the Muslim world, while covertly funding groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Exiled Islamist leaders covet political roles in Tunisia and Egypt, and if religious rule trumps secular representative government, Iran anticipates emerging as a major powerbroker. The pair of writers emphasize that Iran faces big obstacles convincing Sunni Arabs to welcome rigid governance of a Shi’ite theocracy. – YaleGlobal

The Arab Rising – Part II

Suppression of democratic demands at home doesn’t stop Iran from backing Egyptian uprising
Jamsheed K. Choksy, Carol E. B. Choksy
Friday, February 4, 2011

BLOOMINGTON: As Tunisia grapples with its new political order, the Egyptian revolt enters its second week, and protests in Jordan and Yemen gather steam, countries around the world have begun to absorb the impact of the tectonic shift these developments presage. While Israel frets about the danger that a possible rise to power of Islamist radicals in Egypt and Jordan poses, Iran has come forward to welcome these uprisings and take credit. Iranian bragging may be premature, but turmoil across the Arab world does offer Tehran opportunities. Of course, considerable obstacles remain in convincing Arabs to embrace the Iranian brand of Islamic militantism.

Freedom and socioeconomic wellbeing rather than radical Islam seem to be the main factors rallying Arab citizens against their autocratic heads of state – at least for now, though fundamentalists in those countries speak of shifting the focus. Moreover, Arabs are aware that Iranian leaders violently quashed their own citizens’ aspirations for freedom in the summer and fall of 2009. Some Arab protestors even draw inspiration from their Iranian counterparts’ struggles.

Nonetheless, Iranian ayatollahs including Ali Khamenei, Ahmad Khatami and Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi are claiming their Islamic Revolution from more than 30 years ago is the model for Arab populist movements. Tehran’s hardliners have seized upon dissatisfaction among Arabs to suggest that theocracy should guide change from Tunis to Sana‘a. The mullahs regard Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, with its offshoots Al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya and Al-Jihad, plus Jordan’s Islamic Action Front as their revolutionary heirs. So, they allege “incidents that are happening in the Arab world show a Middle East is being created based on Islam.” They envision Arab governments led by Muslim clerics – like Iran’s velayat-e faqih or governance by a Shi‘ite supreme leader.

The ayatollahs know that younger Tunisians, Egyptians, Jordanians and Yemenis, like Iran’s youth, have access to many more sources of data besides religious ones. So the clerics, too, have joined the information age through official websites, Facebook and Twitter – connecting to Sunni Arabs alienated from their societies’ status quo and therefore susceptible to radicalization. The Islamic Republic News Agency and the semi-official Mehr and Fars news agencies also reach across the Middle East on behalf of Iran’s leaders. The mullahs’ outreach is not merely virtual, however. Tehran provides hundreds of scholarships for Arab students to attend Iranian universities and madrasas. Iran supports numerous pan-Islamic youth organizations’ missionary work and hosts their gatherings.

So, many Arabs perceive the theocrats of Iran to be on the side of Muslims downtrodden by domestic politicians and foreign exploiters. Not surprisingly, Iranian and some Arab news outlets have dovetailed their messages: “Pro-Western Arab Countries in Turmoil” and “US Dominoes Fall in Arab World.” Blame for violence against demonstrators in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen is disingenuously attributed to “Israeli, US Generals Taking Control” there.

Iran’s leaders hope events in Arab countries will converge with their propaganda to create a unified Muslim Middle East that looks to Tehran for guidance against the West. Iran’s Majles Speaker Ali Larijani announced: “Our parliament supports the uprising of the Tunisian and Egyptian people for it is the revolution of the noble.” Newly-appointed Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi asserted Iran’s desire that: “Egyptians’ high aims, national demands, and resurrection of glory could be achieved in the very near future.” Lest all this is dismissed as Persian gloating, Iran reemphasized its foreign policy includes: “Supporting the ‘Resistance’ in the Middle East.”

This particular Iranian policy has been active for several years. US government and private sources directly engaged in diplomacy and foreign aid have witnessed Iran’s financial and ideological reach into the Arab world. One senior official in Washington with experience in many of the countries undergoing political flux commented: “By the time American and Saudi aid reached those areas, the Iranians’ cash and presence had gained local people’s empathy and loyalty.”

Iran covertly provides the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt with millions of dollars for political and religious endeavors. With parallel activities in southern Lebanon via Hezbollah, Iran directs resources through the Brotherhood to build up radicalism among poor and middle class Egyptians. Its funds have facilitated the Brotherhood’s growing role in street protests as well. The uprising also enabled 34 Brotherhood leaders to escape Egyptian custody; and they’re beholden to Tehran. “You can call this an Islamic revolution,” predicted Essam el-Erian, a prominent Brotherhood leader who broke free.

Likewise, Iranian diplomats and news media have heralded the return to Tunis of fundamentalist preacher Rached Ghannouchi after more than two decades in exile. Having established ties with Ghannouchi during his years in London, Iran’s mullahs anticipate he could propel the Harakat al-Nahda al-Islamiya or Islamic Renaissance Movement to the forefront of Tunisian politics. Essentially, Tehran seeks an outcome through Ghannouchi like that of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Iran from Paris – a fundamentalist takeover.

Hezbollah’s Secretary General Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah was not only trained in madrasas at Qum but later represented the organization in Tehran. The transformation of Hezbollah from an anti-Israeli militia into an Iranian-guided, street-savvy, Shi‘ite political party that’s become the kingmaker in Lebanese politics is a major triumph for the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy. Mullahs trumpet the Iran-Hezbollah alliance as a fundamentalist, Islamist, counterthrust against moderate Sunni Arabs.

Iran increasingly works with Shi‘ite rebels who are seizing territory along Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, as it does too with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Despite not fully trusting those terrorists, the Shi‘ite mullahs have not hesitated to utilize them as yet another front to spread Tehran’s influence and ideology through violent battles and street protests in Sana‘a and other towns. They speak of making the Arabian Peninsula both Shi‘ite and Persian.

Thirty-three years ago, Iranians came together for freedom. They hoped to oust a monarch and build a representational, tolerant society. Their aspirations were cut short when Khomeini and his cohorts seized control and imposed an internally tyrannical, externally anti-Western, Islamic state. Khomeini outsmarted Iranian politicians seeking plurality first by claiming he would fulfill their expectations and, once they had acceded to his supreme leadership, by brutally removing them from the political scene. His governmental heirs deploy the same tactic for followers in the Arab Middle East to utilize.

Even as the US and the EU remain transfixed by demonstrations in Tunis, Cairo, Amman, and Sana‘a, and by the new order in Beirut, and so react cautiously rather than proactively, Iran decisively shows its hand. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other powerbrokers in Tehran have proven themselves to be more single-minded about domination than even Arab politicians and rulers. They work to influence events in Arab countries, trying to move them in the direction of religious rule rather than secular representational governance so that a “new Middle East takes shape” with Iran as the major player.

The Arab awakening against authoritarian pro-Western governments marks the beginning of a new struggle between secular democracy and Iranian theocracy. Being on the defensive as supporters of the threatened regimes, the West faces a rough road ahead to steer the inevitable changes in its preferred direction. How the US and EU handle the Arabs’ aspiration and the Iranians’ challenge will be important factors in determining the future of the whole Middle East.


Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, international and Islamic studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the US National Endowment for the Humanities. Carol E. B. Choksy is adjunct lecturer in strategic intelligence and information management at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc. The views expressed are their own.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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