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How Iran Sees Egypt's Protests

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Iranian officials planned a rally today -- the thirty-second anniversary of Iran's 1979 revolution -- in support of the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. They are claiming solidarity with Egyptian protesters (AFP) in hopes that Egypt's turmoil will result in an Islamic regime in the Arab world's most populous nation. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called the uprisings (CSMonitor) in Egypt and Tunisia the result of the people's "Islamic awakening." Iranian opposition leaders Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi (NYT) issued an open letter to the government's Interior Ministry to permit their own rally on February 14. But Karroubi's official website reports he has been put under house arrest (BBC). Moussavi and Karroubi's assertions that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were extensions of Iran's 2009 post-election protests led Iranian hardliners to denounce the opposition leaders as "Green Pharoahs" (Rooz).

Whether Egypt's uprising could spread to Iran is an open question. Regional protests come amid deteriorating economic conditions in Iran. Under tightening economic sanctions, economic growth, unemployment, inflation, and poverty are all worse in Iran than in Tunisia or Egypt, writes Ali Reza Eshraghi in the Asia Times. But unlike Tunisia's unpopular former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in January, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still has support from poorer Iranians. Despite the expected pain of Ahmadinejad's new economic reform package, which calls for the removal of subsidies on basic foodstuffs, "in due course, more targeted subsidies (FT) are likely to reward the lower classes that still support his regime," argues CFR's Ray Takeyh.

Iran's regional power also hangs in the balance. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of the danger of an Iran-style Islamist revolution (AFP) in Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and most organized opposition group, eventually takes over. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow assured an Israeli security forum (Reuters) that Egypt's situation would only heighten Arab-Israeli solidarity and affirm U.S. strategic interests. "Israeli and Arab national interests are aligned to an unprecedented degree, based on the shared conviction that Iran's influence must be countered and contained," said Vershbow. Gideon Rachman points out in the Financial Times that the Brotherhood's recent invitation to talks with the government give it "a formal foothold in the unfolding events," stoking fears about its links to the Iranian regime.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood has disavowed (WSJ) any connection to the Iranian regime or the 1979 revolution. Experts note past differences between Iran and the Brotherhood on Islamic movements in the region. Still, Iran's links to the Palestinian movement Hamas (BBC), an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, loom. In a New York Times op-ed, Essam El-Errian, member of the guidance council of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, said the group does not intend to take a dominant role in the forthcoming political transition or put forward a candidate for the scheduled September presidential elections. But, he added, "As our nation heads toward liberty, we disagree with the claims that the only options in Egypt are a purely secular, liberal democracy or an authoritarian theocracy."

The revolution's unpredictable outcome, and Iran's potential to benefit, has challenged the U.S. response (NationalJournal). "Tehran may have already concluded that turmoil in Egypt suits its interests far more than any successful transition to stable democracy," writes Kenneth Pollack in the Wall Street Journal. That is why "the United States, as Egypt's friend and ally, must try to prevent a revolution made in the name of democracy from being hijacked by something much worse," he says.

More Analysis:

In the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz writes, "If Egypt became a democracy, it might work to achieve Palestinian unity, open up the crossing from Gaza and improve relations with Iran and Hezbollah: shifts which would be anathema to Israel."

On his blog Informed Comment, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole points to the differences between a powerful Shia clergy in Iran and a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

In the Wall Street Journal, Amir Taheri says while international sanctions are not perfect, they are hurting the Iranian regime.

In this CFR interview, Hossein G. Askari says sanctions have weakened Iran, but the country's leaders continue to muddle through, in part because of popular support for uranium enrichment.

Background:

In this Washington Institute Policy Watch, Mehdi Khalaji explains the complex history of relations between the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt, and Iran.

This CFR Backgrounder examines the lengthening list of sanctions to isolate and pressure Iran.

This CFR Backgrounder examines the Muslim Brotherhood.

Please find the original publication here.