Tehran Is in Deficit. Sunnis Move in Everywhere
Iran's Islamic rulers have been blowing hot and cold over the Arab Revolt.
They gravitate between hope, anxiety, disappointment and fear: Hope that the unrest will nullify Western influence and pave the way for strong Islamic regimes in Arab lands; anxiety and disappointment over Sunni Islam's rising strength and ability to curtail Shiite expansion; fear that the unrest will infect Iran's masses – and acrobatic sophistry, most of all, for covering their inner contradictions.
Tehran welcomed the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt and the toppling of their presidents – at first. They acclaimed the upsets as inspired by the Khomeinist revolution which created the Islamic Republic of Iran 32 years ago: Iran had finally exported its revolution to other Muslim countries and was therefore itself immune to the unrest.
But satisfaction gave way to an awkward silence when the dissent spread to its senior ally, Syria. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei then rose the challenge: It was all part of an Israeli-Western plot to harm the Muslim world and Iran, he maintained; nothing at all to do with the Arab Revolt.
But the Iranian public was not fooled by this hypocritical pretext. The ordinary Iranian, having closely followed the progress of Middle East unrest, did not fail to notice that, notwithstanding Tehran's blustering support for the uprisings in several Arab countries, Iran's objectives had not been furthered by an inch.
In Bahrain, Iran backed a losing horse
In Bahrain, the Iran-backed Shiite uprising against the throne was squashed by Saudi and Gulf emirates' military intervention. Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen fomenting the unrest in the guise of protest activists were captured and put on trial and the Hizballah agents imported from Lebanon to engineer the riots were expelled from the island-kingdom.
The whole venture was worse then a flop; it backfired. The spiritual leader of Bahrain'si Shiites, Ayatollah Sheikh Issa Ahmad Qassem, denounced Iranian interference in the kingdom after Khamenei called on Bahraini dissidents not to give up until the throne was overturned.
Iran's bitterness over the debacle was exacerbated by the sight of the Sunni King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa sitting firmly on the throne and restoring order in the kingdom.
An Iranian effort to round up thousands of Iranian "volunteers" for a protest flotilla to Bahrain also fell flat. Several members of the Majlis want "Iran's foreign policy failures" to be investigated in reference to Bahrain. Although the issue appears frequently on parliament's agenda, no debate has ever taken place.
This may be because the two leading factions of the regime are at odds on how Tehran should handle the Arab uprisings: Followers of the Spiritual Leader believe Iran can still hope for pickings and save Assad from the fury of his people, whereas President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's circle believes the Arab Revolt is a lost cause for Tehran with nothing to offer but trouble.
Egypt withdraws from its brief flirtation with Iran
The latter view gained support from the cold shoulder Egypt's post-Mubarak rulers have shown Tehran in response to feelers for putting relations on a new, amicable footing. Those feelers have drawn no positive feedback from Cairo. After meeting Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Bali, Indonesia on May 26, his Egyptian opposite number Nabil al-Arabi spoke of opening a new page in relations.
But nothing came of it.
More recently, 45 Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition activists visited Tehran at Iran's invitation. The entire gallery of Iranian leaders, including the president, turned out to greet them. But instead of providing a platform for strengthening ties, the visit was mired in a fierce argument between certain guests and hosts over the right path to the future.
Iranian leaders even tried material lures – to no avail. Although it imports wheat for its own use, Iran offered Egypt a huge quantity at 10 percent below the world price. Also promised were 400,000 Iranian tourist visits to help stimulate the flagging Egyptian economy. Every Iranian would spend $5,000, so netting $2 billion in revenue for the Egyptian treasury.
This of course was an empty promise because it is more than the average Iranian wage.
In any case, Cairo is still not inclined to play the friendship game with Tehran.
Turkey makes hay from Iran's unpopularity in Syria
The unrest in Syria is a double blow to the Iranian leadership.
Not only is their most valuable ally and main arms supply route to Hizballah in Lebanon in peril, but Turkey is using Syria to bolster its regional stature by attacking Bashar Assad and so buying his people's sympathy. Alongside the popularity afforded Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the disaffected Syrian masses are burning Iranian and Hizballah flags.
It has not been lost on the Iranian public that the military planes which carry security personnel, ammunition and crowd dispersal gear from Tehran to Damascus at least twice a day, to keep Assad's crackdown afloat, return home with the coffins of Iranians slain in stormy Syrian demonstrations.
The bazaar rumor mills naturally inflate the figures of Iranian dead in Syria. But whatever the numbers, they contribute to the heavy sense of national defeat prevailing in Iran – a mood that tends to undermine support for the Iranian regime.