The unrest and repression in Iran following the country’s controversial elections is reversing some of the regional political gains that the Islamic regime enjoyed over the past decade, according to a panel at the University of Maryland today.
Speaking at the symposium After the 2009 Elections: Domestic, Regional, and International Dimensions, Stanford University professor Abbas Milani said that that the Islamic Republic is currently dealing with “the most serious crisis in thirty years,” and “is more divided than it has ever been.” Milani said that “Two pillars of the regime” — Khamenei and Rafsanjani — “are at each others’ throats.” More importantly, Abbas said, not do people no longer believe in the regime, but many of the people “now believe that the regime is afraid of them.”
At the same time, according to Milani,”The international situation has never been as dangerous for [Iran] as it is now.” After significantly increasing its political reach and influence as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, post-election repression has caused the regime to lose legitimacy not only in the eyes of much of the international community, but also in the eyes of many Islamists throughout the Middle East who had previously looked to Iran as a standard bearer of resistance against the West.
Milani referred to a recent paper by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the seminal Islamist organization in the Middle East, which he said described the Brotherhood’s shifting view. “Before June 12,” Milani said, “the view among the Muslim Brotherhood was to support Iran against the West’s bullying.” But now “Brotherhood leaders are finding it more difficult to defend Iran.’
Groups like Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shia parties, Milani said, are also “hedging their bets, [and] are no longer assured that their future lies in an alliance with the Islamic Republic.
Assessing Iran’s appeal to the Arab Middle East, Panelist Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace quipped that “Iran is to the Middle East what Rush Limbaugh is to the US.” They appeal to “the alienated and downtrodden.” Iran’s “Death to America” propaganda resonates most “when people are outraged over U.S. and Israeli behavior”.
UMD’s Shibley Telhami noted the divergence between how Arab governments view Iran and how Arab publics view Iran. “Many Arab regimes are unpopular for their own corruption,” Telhami said “but also, in the case of Egypt and Jordan, because of the Israeli issue.” It is the continuing importance of the Israeli-Palestinian issue to their publics, and anger at regional governments for not having donw more to help the Palestinians, Telhami said, that compels states like Egypt and Jordan to hype the threat from Shiite Iran.
Iran’s loss of appeal could have negative short-term consequences for the region, however. Sadjadpour said that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps is now “essentially running Iranian foreign policy in the region, [while] the foereign ministry been sidelined.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaqi “is basically a spokesperson, [and] not deciding policy,” according to Sadjadpour.
The recent seizure by Israel of what Israel claims were Iranian arms headed for Hezbollah could be an ominous sign of what’s to come, as the Iranian regime may look to regain some of its lost resistance bona fides by drawing from the well that never runs dry: The Israel-Palestine conflict.