The remarkable rising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has roused interest throughout the world. Interest is especially keen in Iran, where official statements and propaganda have been aimed at the so-called Arab Street for many years now. Egyptians did not need a foreign agit-prop campaign to know Mubarak was brutal and corrupt, that he had acquiesced to various US and Israeli policies, and that their futures were not bright. Nonetheless, Iran will seek to take advantage of the new situation, and interaction between the two countries will be critical for years to come.
The Conflict With Sunni-Arab States
For decades now, there has been a low-level conflict between Iran and several Sunni-Arab states. The origin of the conflict goes back centuries and involves both sectarian and geopolitical elements. Its more immediate cause was Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Islamic revolution in 1979 and Iraq’s invasion the following year, which was backed by many Sunni Arab states.
Today the conflict centers on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with Egypt sidling with the strange bedfellows of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US. Their diplomatic, trade, and intelligence operations seek to effect regime change in Iran and convince any new government to abandon the weapons program. Iran will try to persuade Egypt to withdraw from the anti-Iran bloc and to exert diplomatic and financial pressure on Israel – perhaps even military pressure.
Iran may seek to use the Shia of Egypt in this effort but their numbers are small, even though Cairo was once the capital of the Shia Fatimids. In any case Shia around the world have only rarely cared for Iran’s urgings. Iran’s economy is struggling and the US-led embargo has worsened matters, but money can and will be found to donate to the new Egyptian government. Few such aid programs are without prior understandings and expectations.
Similar encouragements may come from Iran’s ally China. It is one of the few states to stand behind Iran – an important source of Chinese energy, of course. China has made important business inroads in Africa, including just to the south in the oil fields of Sudan, and will seek to continue its navalist policies by gaining port facilities along the Red Sea, near the Suez Canal.
Curiously, Iranian naval vessels are on a tour of the region – one scheduled well before the recent events in Egypt. The ships are presently in the Red Sea and will soon transit the Suez Canal for the Mediterranean.
The Reform Movement in Iran
Iran’s propaganda campaign is coming back to haunt it. Iranians themselves may be more attentive than Egyptians are to President Ahmadinejad’s praise for the uprising and to the Iranian parliament’s call for investigations into Mubarak’s crimes.
Iran’s official remonstrances evoke thoughts of galling hypocrisy among the urban middle classes who demonstrated against the regime’s electoral fraud in 2009. They are returning to the streets of Tehran this week. The Iranian government has expressed opposition to such gatherings, setting the stage for a test of wills – and of repressive capacity.
Comparison of demonstrations in Tehran two years ago and recent ones in Cairo offer important differences. The opposition to Mubarak was widespread, reaching across the country and throughout the social system. Iranian reformists, on the other hand, were primarily urban and middle class. Support in Iran’s working class and in rural areas is not strong, though recent rises in the costs of food, energy, and cooking oil – critical triggers in uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt – have brought discontent throughout Iran as the government has removed many subsidies.
Iran’s repressive capacity probably remains high. Its security forces and the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are strong. Unlike the Egyptian army, the IRGC is not based on conscripts and so is far more reliable for internal repression. From its special forces down to the Basij militia, the IRGC is ideologically indoctrinated and highly antagonistic toward privileged strata, whom they deem in league with foreign powers.
Iran’s military elite will seek to exploit events in Egypt to advance national interests, but it has institutional interests as well. There are sufficient similarities between the IRGC and the Egyptian army that make the former intent on watching events in Egypt.
Over the years, each has placed its retired personnel throughout the state machinery and corporate world, and each stands atop business enterprises involved in matters wholly unrelated to defense industries, expansive as that term has become over the years. Each is determined to retain those sinecures and privileges – if not expand them.
The IRGC is asking, why did repressive measures – shows of force, mounted forays into crowds, hired toughs – fail to disperse the crowds and maintain order? Have their own forces become disaffected over price hikes and developed sympathies with reformists? Could it happen here?
Looking longer-term, beyond domestic events of the next week or so, the IRGC will seek to learn how to turn any uprising to its advantage. The Egyptian army has skillfully won over a sizable portion of the popular movement. It has posed itself – with an uncertain degree of sincerity – as protectors of the demonstrators and then as the decisive force that ousted the old regime, which in any case was no longer sustainable or even useful.
Afterward, as popular engagement wanes but the perhaps naive gratitude persists, the army can present itself as the only institution that can maintain order and shepherd the nation to a new political system – one with the unified general staff in prominence and various democratic forces playing secondary roles at best.
©2011 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and the author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at email@example.com.