Why Tehran is backing the anti-Mubarak protesters

Iranians are being asked to support Egypt’s ‘Islamic awakening’. But will it backfire on Tehran regime?

BY Neil Clark LAST UPDATED AT 14:17 ON Fri 11 Feb 2011

Many western liberals have been keen to portray recent events in Tunisia and Egypt as the Arab world’s 1989: the year when street demonstrations and anti-government protests were followed by the fall of long-standing Communist regimes in eastern Europe.

But in Iran, they see things rather differently. From the perspective of the Iranian regime, what we’re witnessing is not a re-run of 1989, but of 1979, when the Iranian people overthrew the western-backed Shah of Iran and the Islamic Republic was established.

Fars, the official Iranian press agency, describes the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia as a "wave of Islamic awakening".

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, declared at prayers last week: "The awakening of the Islamic Egyptian people is an Islamic liberation movement and I, in the name of the Iranian government, salute the Egyptian people and the Tunisian people."

Khamenei fiercely denounced Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, saying: "Not only he is not anti-Zionist, but he is the companion, colleague, confidant and servant of Zionists. It is a fact that Hosni Mubarak's servitude to America has been unable to take Egypt one step towards prosperity."

Iran regards the protests in Tunisia and Egypt as a clear sign that people of the region are finally rising up against corrupt pro-western and un-Islamic regimes, as Iranians did themselves 32 years ago. And the authorities in Tehran are keen to make sure that ordinary Iranians see that their government is 100 per cent behind the protesters

At today’s state-organised demonstrations in Iran to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, officials called for people to show their solidarity with the protesters in Egypt.

But could Iran’s enthusiastic support for the protesters of Tahrir Square backfire and put its own regime under renewed pressure?

Iran’s 'green' opposition is also keen to 'own' the Egyptian protests, and claim the pro-democracy cause to be their own. In a joint letter posted by Saham News last Sunday, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, two defeated candidates in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, invited people "to express solidarity with . . . the freedom-seeking revolts of the people of Tunis and Egypt against despotic regimes".

The opposition have called a demonstration of their own on February 14 to show solidarity with Egyptian protesters – though Karroubi will not be able to attend, having reportedly been placed under house arrest by Iranian police.

If Iranians do answer the call from Karroubi and Mousavi, it is likely to be economic factors that drive them on to the streets, as much as any sympathy they have with the Egyptian protesters. The harsh economic sanctions imposed by the US and the UN have hit the Iranian economy hard. The removal of government subsidies has seen prices rocket - the price of petrol went up 75 per cent in one day last month - and prices of bread and other staples are also expected to rise sharply in the weeks ahead.

But, despite the high risks involved, Tehran clearly feels that siding with street protesters elsewhere is the correct strategy. For a start, the regime, for all its negative media coverage in the west, still has more popular support than Mubarak’s.

Writing at the time of the disputed Presidential elections of 2009, Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer in the Middle East and a man who could hardly be accused of being a mouthpiece for the Ayatollahs, said: "The truth is, Ahmadinejad may be the President the Iranians want, and we may have to live with an Iran to Iranians' liking and not to ours."

At the same time that Ahmadinejad has cut government subsidies on basic essentials, he’s also been shrewd enough to make sure that financial assistance from the government will continue to be paid to the less well-off - his core constituency.

Iran’s Islamist leadership knows that what happens next in Egypt is of enormous importance to its own long-term future. The replacement of Mubarak by a more Islamic regime which distances itself from the US and Israel would tilt the regional balance firmly in favour of Tehran.

But if Mubarak is replaced by a man like Omar Suleiman (who, according to the WikiLeaks cables, is the Egyptian leader that Tel Aviv would be "most comfortable with") and Cairo-style protests spread to Tehran, then it’s Israel who will hold the advantage.

The irony is that the Tehran regime’s line - that the events in Egypt mark a Islamic 'reawakening' - is shared by one other group: right-wing Zionists.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu also sees the disturbances in Egypt as a possible rerun of 1979. It’s not every day that you get an Israeli leader and the ayatollahs of Iran in agreement. ·