Is Iran Immune to the Arab Spring?

In light of Ahmadinejad’s claims that the United States is attempting to prevent Islamic style revolutions from spreading across the region, it is important to analyze and assess Iran’s position in the revolutionary Middle East today from various perspectives. In an interview with Al-Jazeera regarding the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador last week, Ahmadinejad stated that the Arab Spring is directly influenced by Iran’s 1979 revolution and that the rest of the Middle East would soon possess similar Islamic Republics which would be a colossal threat to American interests in the Middle East. According to his perspective, Iran is bench mark that the revolutions in other nations are attempting to reach. According to other analysts, scholars, and journalists, however, Iran today is not a symbol of revolutionary triumph at all, but rather a repressive state that has failed to reach the level of revolutionary fever that the rest of the region appears to be immersed in today. Thus, in many ways, Iran appears to be immune to the Arab Spring.

This article entitled “Is Iran Immune to the Arab Spring?” from Eurasia Review addresses the motives and failures of Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, assesses why a similar movement does not appear to be coming forth now, and attempts to explain how certain regional and transnational events could possibly lead to an Arab Spring like revolution in Iran. According to the article, the political and social repression dealt by the Ayatollah and his moral police situates Iran as top on the list of Middle Eastern governments likely to be overthrown by the rage of its sorely afflicted citizens. Due to the use of internet, corruption in the government, and economic malaise, Iran’s situation makes it more likely to trigger public unrest than either Egypt’s or Tunisia’s. However, Iran’s population still appears too politically divided and ambiguous to erupt change from within. Thus, while many features increase Iran’s vulnerability to pro-democracy unrest, a number of deeper structural factors have contributed to the country’s relative immunity to the 2011 Arab spring. Listed below are several factors that the article lists as influential in preventing revolution:

The Green Movement: Too internally divided just as it was during the 2009 Green Revolution. Half of the participants want a new Iran that still embraces the Supreme Leader while others want a full democracy.  The movement is thus incoherent in its goals and lacks a consistent strategy while many citizens still overrate it as the main driver of change. The movement also relies on the state for  ‘demonstration permits’, or urges demonstrators to go home when the government orders them to disperse instead of advising them to remain in the streets. This is a major difference from the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

The Military: Iran’s military is strongly aligned with Ayatollah Khamenei. Where the Egyptian military aligned with the rebels together successfully pressured Mubarak to step down, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps stood firmly behind Supreme Leader Khamenei in the 2009 post-election protests and spearheaded the massacres. Since then, the Republic has gradually transformed into a military dictatorship making it even more difficult for protestors to incite revolutionary change under severe repression.

Oil Wealth: Iran’s oil revenues approached $100 billion in 2011 according to the IMF, representing a 25 per cent annual rise. Soaring oil prices, which have kept most authoritarian oil rentier regimes firmly in place, are not likely to drop anytime soon. This oil wealth will thus most likely keep the Iranian regime in place until oil revenues fail to provide citizens with employment, food and basic services which is what happened in Libya.

Despite the above factors keeping the current regime in place, however, there are a number possibilities listed could lead to a new Iranian revolution and even a democratic Iranian state. According to the article, they are:

Divisions within the Regime: A split has been escalating between the traditional conservatives under Supreme Leader Khamenei, and the so- called ‘deviant current’, a term used by the director of the Revolutionary Guards to describe Ahmadinejad’s and his inner circle’s emphasis on the cultural-national components of Iran’s identity, rather than its Islamic values. The disintegration of the current ruling party could open up potential for revolutionary influence to take place and possibly lead to the installation of a democratic government.

Syria: Iran’s biggest concern is losing influence in Syria, its most important ally since the war with Iraq and with whom it shares a comprehensive defence pact. A stable alliance with Syria is key to Iran’s continuing ability to exercise pressure on Israel and the West. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria would weaken the Iranian regime by isolating it regionally and fostering further splits within its leadership, thereby enhancing the prospects of political change.

Regional Isolation: Iran’s support for Syria’s repressive regime is isolating the regime from its neighbors’ support in the region. Egypt is likely to develop its relations with the Hamas government in Gaza which could foster increased competition for the role of patron of the Palestinian cause and work against Iran’s desire to project its power. The Revolutionary Guards also warned Turkey about their policy towards Damascus, as Turkey has hosted Syrian opposition gatherings and weapon transfers. Turkey also appears to be seeking to secure an alliance with post-Mubarak Egypt to provide a counterweight to the Iranian influence. Increasingly fierce competition over regional clout is testing Turkish-Iranian ties.

Due to these factors, the Iranian regime is being pushed ever further into regional isolation which has weakened it both internationally and domestically. Future significant shifts in the regional power balance might also alter the international community’s positions towards Iran, possibly leading to a more active and less ambiguous support to domestic forces of change. Depending on how far these transnational and international powers shift and/or balance themselves out, Iran may not be so immune to the revolution and to the Arab Spring after all.

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