Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (photo: IRNA)
Interview with Ali Granmayeh about Iran and the ''Arabellions''

Yearning for Lost Freedoms

In 2009, well before the Arab Spring began, Iranians rose up against their regime in what became known as the Green Revolution. Their uprising failed. So how do they and the Iranian regime feel about the wave of uprisings that have swept the Arab world this year? Mona Sarkis met Ali Granmayeh, a former Iranian diplomat, to find out

Mr Granmayeh, the perception of the Arab uprisings seems to vary hugely within Iran: some draw parallels with Iran in 2009, while the regime draws parallels with Iran in 1979.

Ali Granmayeh: The regime rejects any comparisons with 2009 and 2011. Instead it underscores that the Islamic Revolution was the origin of all uprisings in the Islamic world. The logic is clear: because 1979 led to the foundation of an Islamic state, all movements in the region should yield the same results. The only parallel the regime draws between the two historical dates relates to Syria, where the uprising is "instigated by foreign elements", as it felt it was in Iran in 2009.

Iranian people think the exact opposite. Because they were the first to take to the streets in 2009, they feel that they started all the uprisings. As far as 1979 is concerned, the young generation is asking the older one: Why did you make such a great mistake, creating such a situation for us? Prior to 1979 there was freedom; now we have lost so much that we didn't expect to lose, such as women's rights.

What did the Iranian government expect from the different Arab uprisings?

Granmayeh: It used its propaganda machinery to claim that the nucleus of each movement was an Islamic ideology. It wanted Islam-oriented parties to take power and is dissatisfied with the results. This is also true of Tunisia, where the al-Nahda party led by Rashid Ghannouchi declared that it does not wish to establish an Islamic but a broad-based civil system.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) speaking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (photo: AP)
According to Ali Granmayeh, Iran sides completely with the Syrian regime even though Bashar al-Assad's regime is the most secular in the Arab world

​​The same goes for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Iran criticizes the brotherhood as being influenced by the West, which is encouraging it to move towards Western style democracy. At the same time, the regime knows very well that the only Egyptian movement that would like to establish an Islamic government is the Salafist movement, which is totally anti-Shia. So Iran is mainly using the term "Islamic ideology" to tell Egyptian society that Islamic tendencies have the right to have a share in their future government – nothing more than that.

Finally Libya, Iran never considered the unpredictable Gaddafi a good Muslim leader and is not very interested in the country. This is not the case with Syria; here, Iran sides completely with the regime, even though there might be Islamists fighting in Syria – Iran knows that they are not against the West – and even though Bashar al-Assad's regime is the most secular regime in the Arab world. Syria is less an ideological question and more of a strategic question because of Hezbollah or Hamas.

Some reports claim that Iran is assisting Syria not only financially but also with the deployment of fighters. There is, however, no proof of this. What can you tell us about this?

Granmayeh: It would be a huge mistake for the Iranian government, which emphasises the rejection of any foreign interference, to allow members of the Revolutionary Guards to be physically involved in the suppression. It would give other countries that oppose Bashar al-Assad a reason to send in their own forces. As for members of Hezbollah being active, I don't know. Iranians don't speak the same language and would, therefore, be easily recognisable. Not so the Lebanese. However, as a Shia organisation, Hezbollah depends much more on Iran than on the cooperation with Syria. So I suppose it is thinking more about its own survival than of that of Bashar al-Assad.

The most delicate uprising for Iran is the one in Bahrain.

Granmayeh: The question here is both ideological and strategic. Of course, Iran considers it the right of the Shia majority to take over, and the Bahraini Shia clergy – many of whom lived in Iran for years – expects some support.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
Regional rivals: Iran supports the rights of Bahrain's Shia majority, which is ruled by a Sunni minority, while Saudi-Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to help suppress the revolt and support the Sunni monarchy and government

​​The fact that Bahrain is enhancing the power of Iran's regional rival, Saudi-Arabia, which sent troops to suppress the revolt, is another problem. But Iran's hands are tied. And I don't think it wants to do anything. Iran's foreign minister visited four of the GCC countries in May – Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – and assured them that Iran does not want to cause tensions in the region, knowing that such tensions would spread across all countries, including Iran itself.

Last but not least, the government is aware of the necessity of having indirect contact with the West. Some GCC countries that depend less on Saudi-Arabia – like rich and ambitious Qatar – accepted to act as go-between. As a result, in every meeting with Qatar, Iran gets a message from Washington or the European Union, and I think it appreciates this.

Another serious rival to Islamic Iran is secular Turkey. Considering, for example, the efforts Ankara is making to get a handle on the Syrian opposition by organising it's conferences on its territory, it is obvious that Turkey wants to take the lead in the region and has no intention of leaving much space for Iran. How does this affect the relationship between the two countries?

Granmayeh: I can give you my perception on the basis of what happened in the beginning of October. But let us first recall how strongly Yahya Rahim Safavi, the Iranian leader's military advisor and former chief of the Revolutionary Guards, condemned Turkey's policy for spreading liberal Islam in the Middle East as well as the statement made by Erdogan in Egypt concerning the priority of secular systems in Muslim countries.

Safavi also condemned the fact that Turkey gave NATO permission to establish a defence shield in Turkey. Now, at the beginning of October, Iran's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs met Turkey's Minister of Foreign Affairs in Ankara and declared that both countries stand together regarding developments in the Middle East.

Ali Granmayeh (photo: University of London)
Ali Granmayeh is a former Iranian diplomat who now teaches International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London; he is also a research associate at the university's Middle East Institute

​​Both are obviously trying to keep up an expedient relationship because of their many common interests, for instance the question of Kurdish insurgence. Both Turkey and Iran are attacking Kurdistan, or northern Iraq. Secondly, Iran exports gas to Turkey. If there is any chance of Iran exporting its energy to the West in the future, it would be through Turkey. So, in order to avoid further isolation, Iran deems it better not to challenge Turkey too much.

What has the atmosphere been like in Iran since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings? Do people think: we didn't make it in 2009, so let's try again? Or are they exhausted by the regime's repression?

Granmayeh: The climate is extremely tense. More and more people are deprived of playing a role in politics. In the past, liberal Muslims – followers of the first prime minister of Iran after the revolution – were excluded. Now the so-called Islamic pragmatists have been excluded, people who are reformist supporters of the Islamic regime, like Mohammad Khatami or Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leader of the Green Revolution.

Where will this exclusion stop? It doesn't just affect politicians, but the whole of Iranian society. Take, for example, the Sunni minority that contributed to the formation of the Islamic government – they too fought against Saddam Hussein – they are not allowed to have prayers in Teheran for Eid al-Fitr, the feast that brings the month of Ramadan to an end. Instead they were asked to have a Shia imam leading their prayers, which is against their religious beliefs. So, people are more and more desperate. There seems to be no salvation for them.

Interview conducted by Mona Sarkis

© Qantara.de 2011

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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