Iran Cheers Egypt, Tunisia Revolts as Ahmadinejad Stifles Domestic Dissent

Iran’s rulers are applauding Arab people power as it sweeps away hostile regimes, and cracking down on domestic opponents who today attempted a repeat of the mass protests that roiled the Islamic republic in 2009.

Hours before President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11 and Cairo reverberated with cheers, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a speech to mark the 32nd anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution, said Egypt’s uprising heralded “a new Middle East” without Israeli and U.S. interference. A week earlier, at Friday prayers in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that “the Iranian nation is witnessing the echo of its voice in other parts of the Muslim world.”

Iranian opposition groups, who accuse Khamenei and Ahmadinejad of resembling the ousted Arab leaders in their defiance of popular demands, were met with tear gas and baton charges when they held a rally in Tehran today in solidarity with the regime-changers in Egypt, Al Jazeera television said.

Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were labeled U.S. lapdogs by Iran for repressing religious groups or opposing its nuclear program. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad ordered a crackdown on the 2009 protests that left dozens dead and thousands in jail. They also face complaints about scarce jobs and high prices, as well as a lack of civil and democratic rights, that resemble those voiced by the Arab demonstrators.

‘Power Vacuum’

“The Islamic republic will seek to capitalize on any form of temporary power vacuum” in U.S. allies shaken by protests, said Gala Riani, a Middle East analyst at London-based forecaster IHS Global Insight. Domestically, “the opposition is a lot weaker now and the regime is well prepared for any type of protests,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean that it is safe if the economy deteriorates, and it probably will,” Riani said.

Thousands of security officers were deployed in Tehran today to stop separate groups of demonstrators, rallying throughout the city, from converging on the central Azadi Square, Al Jazeera said. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a candidate beaten by Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential election who then backed mass protests against the result, has had his phone lines cut and police vehicles blocking his street in the past two days, opposition website Kaleme said.

Any revival of unrest in Iran, which holds the world’s fourth-biggest oil reserves, has the potential to push crude prices higher. That didn’t happen in the days of clashes after Iran’s June 2009 election, when the global recession was depressing demand. Crude rose as much as 7 percent in the first week of Egypt’s revolt, though it has been decreasing since. The Iranian revolution of 1979 caused prices to more than double.

Competing Claims

As Iran’s authorities claim credit for inspiring the Arab uprisings, the opposition says they mirror its own protests demanding democracy and economic change. The Green Movement, born out of objections that Ahmadinejad’s re-election was rigged, swelled into mass demonstrations in major cities. Khamenei called the protesters tools of foreign powers, a charge also leveled by Egyptian authorities in the past two weeks.

While Iran’s state television broadcast historical footage from the Islamic revolution intercut with scenes from the Cairo protests, opposition leaders saw an opportunity to renew their attack on Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. They applied to hold a rally today “to express solidarity with the people’s movement in the region against their oppressive regimes.”

Iran’s judiciary warned that such a demonstration would be seen as a “political act” requiring counter-measures by authorities. Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, another leader of the 2009 protests, have underlined a parallel between the Egyptian uprising and the one they led.

‘Quasi-Coup’

“What took place over the vote outcome and after the quasi-coup by authoritarians took away the people’s fundamental right to choose their fate,” they wrote in a statement published on Feb. 8.

Iran and Egypt don’t have diplomatic ties and since 1979, the year of Iran’s revolution and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, they have been on opposite sides of the Middle East divide. Iran supports Hamas, the militant Islamic movement that rules the Gaza Strip, and the Shiite Hezbollah group in Lebanon, both labeled as terrorists by the U.S. and Israel.

Egypt has criticized Iran’s nuclear program, which led the United Nations to impose four rounds of sanctions. Mubarak also cooperated with Israel to impose a blockade on Gaza and supported Hezbollah’s pro-American rivals. Egypt’s biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has historical links with Hamas.

Subsidies Phased Out

Iranians confront economic hardships, including rising prices and unemployment, resembling those that helped spark uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Since the government started phasing out subsidies two months ago, gasoline prices have surged sevenfold. Utilities and basic food products such as wheat, rice and sugar are also included in the five-year program. The inflation rate was 10.8 percent in the 12 months through January.

“The economic fallout from the recent subsidy reductions is yet to be fully felt by the population,” said Robert Powell, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in New York. “Arguably, it is this rather than the revolt in North Africa that could precipitate any future mass protests.”

Youth unemployment rose to 25 percent in the Iranian calendar year ending last March, from 23 percent the year before, according to the country’s Statistics Center. Overall unemployment was 11.9 percent in 2009.

Political Ideas

The channels of exchange for political ideas between Iran and Egypt may be less clear than either the Iranian government or its opposition movement suggest.

Less than one-fifth of Egyptians have a favorable view of Iran or its ally Hamas, according to preliminary results of a study by New Jersey-based Pechter Middle East Polls, conducted on behalf of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and published Feb. 9. The survey was based on almost 350 interviews between Feb. 5 and Feb. 8 and cited a margin of error of 6 percent.

Iranians, meanwhile, “have traditionally not looked toward the Arab world for political inspiration,” said Trita Parsi, an Iran scholar and president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, though he added that in the case of the current protests, “you can’t rule it out.”

‘Mistake of 1979’

The harshness of Iran’s response is one reason the 2009 protests petered out, Parsi said. Others include the larger number of “stakeholders” in the Islamic republic’s survival, and fear among Iranians of a repeat of “the mistake of 1979,” replacing one repressive system with another, he said.

Neither Mubarak nor Ben Ali possessed “a massive force with an ideological commitment to the regime that is willing to use brutal violence against the civilian population over a prolonged period,” he said. Also, Tunisian and Egyptian protesters coalesced around the single goal of ousting leaders, and “put all their focus and efforts on that step,” he said. “The Iranians were thinking several steps ahead.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ladane Nasseri in Tehran at lnasseri@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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