New York Times: The rancorous dispute over Iran’s presidential election could turn into a win-win for Arab leaders aligned with Washington who in the past have complained bitterly that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was destabilizing the region and meddling in Arab affairs, political analysts and former officials around the region said.
The New York Times
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
Published: June 25, 2009
CAIRO — The rancorous dispute over Iran’s presidential election could turn into a win-win for Arab leaders aligned with Washington who in the past have complained bitterly that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was destabilizing the region and meddling in Arab affairs, political analysts and former officials around the region said.
The good-news thinking goes like this: With Mr. Ahmadinejad remaining in office, there is less chance of substantially improved relations between Tehran and Washington, something America’s Arab allies feared would undermine their interests. At the same time, the electoral conflict may have weakened Iran’s leadership at home and abroad, forcing it to focus more on domestic stability, political analysts and former officials said.
“When Iran is strong and defiant they don’t like her and when Iran is closer to the West they don’t like her,” said Adnan Abu Odeh, a former adviser to King Hussein of Jordan.
Of course, such an outcome could also prove to be wishful thinking, political analysts cautioned. Other power centers in Iran, from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to the military, can have more influence over regional policy than the president. It is also possible that a deeply divided leadership could aim to exacerbate regional tensions to distract attention from its domestic problems.
The Iranian standoff may also serve as a cautionary tale for Arab leaders who have watched as modern technology, like the Internet, social networking sites and cellphones, has yet again undermined the ability of authoritarian states to control access to and distribution of information.
But the cultural and social differences between Iran and Arab states are so great, there was no sense that leaders feared their citizens would be inspired to rise up. Iran is an important and influential nation in the Middle East, but it is also distant from the Sunni Arab street as a majority Persian country with a majority Shiite population.
“A lot of young people in the Arab world would love to see something like that, but the kind of civil society they have makes it much more natural for this to happen in Iran than in a place like Egypt or Saudi Arabia,” said Ahmed al-Omran, a college student in Saudi Arabia and author of the popular blog saudijeans.org.
Moreover, the dramatic video of Iranians being beaten or shot by Basijis has done incalculable damage to Iran’s image as the region’s most religiously pure and populist state. Iran’s allies in the region, including Syria, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hamas movement in the Palestinian territories, also seem likely to suffer a blow to their credibility, and perhaps to their financing, if the election crisis is resolved with heavy suppression or an extended standoff with the opposition, analysts said.
One gauge of how Arab leaders are reacting to the Iran crisis is their silence. Officials seem eager to avoid even the appearance that they are trying to influence the outcome, political analysts said. The state-controlled media outlets around the region have also been relatively low key in their coverage.
“When you are waiting so much for something that makes you happy, you hold your breath, you make less noise in order not to affect the outcome,” said Randa Habib, a political analyst and columnist in Amman, Jordan.
Iran’s allies, on the other hand, are restive. Emad Gad, an Egyptian expert in international affairs, said that he saw evidence of Iran’s allies, especially in Syria, trying to hedge their bet on Tehran. He said that Syria had in recent days been more willing to help Egypt press for reconciliation between Palestinian factions.
“I think Ahmadinejad will concentrate in the economic field to improve living conditions for his population after this crisis,” Mr. Gad said. “That means less giving money, less meddling, less penetration in the Arab world, less involvement.”
When the Iranian government first announced that Mr. Ahmadinejad had won a landslide victory, there was a collective sigh of regret among Arab leaders aligned with Washington. They had hoped that the reform candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, would win, but they instead ended up — it appeared — with an emboldened incumbent. So it is with a bit of surprise, indeed disbelief and no shortage of cheer, that events may yet turn out even better than if Mr. Moussavi had won, political analysts said.
“The Arab leaders are watching and they are very pleased,” Mr. Gad said. “The Ahmadinejad after this election will be very different than the Ahmadinejad before this election. He will be weaker.”
There is, analysts acknowledged, a potentially darker sequence of events that could emerge — one where Mr. Ahmadinejad comes out of this crisis even less concerned about domestic opinion than before and more aggressive. Analysts said that could prove difficult for him, though, because of deep splits that the conflict has already caused among the political elite.
The Arab governments aligned with Washington are part of a camp that has promoted an Arab peace initiative with Israel. Iran, they have charged, has worked to undermine the peace process by financing Hamas and Hezbollah and by attacking those in the peace camp. Before the elections, Iran was increasingly flexing its geopolitical muscles, often in disputes with its much smaller Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf region. A former Iranian speaker of Parliament, for example, said that Bahrain was historically part of Iran.
Now, Arab leaders are looking to regain the momentum and slow Iran’s spreading power and influence, analysts said. They are also looking to use the crisis in Iran to undermine political Islam in general. The Arab world is ruled by authoritarian leaders, kings and emirs — and its greatest challenge to legitimacy and control is political Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan.
“Opponents of the Islamist movement go far in anticipating the collapse of the Islamic revolution and the end of the Islamist movements and their political project,” said Mohammad Abu Rumman, research editor at the newspaper Al Ghad in Amman. “Anticipating the failure of the revolution is an anticipation of the failure of political Islam in general.”
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.