Between a domestic challenge and the Arab Spring: the rise and fall of the Iranian revolutionary model
December 20, 2011
Between a domestic challenge and the Arab Spring:
the rise and fall of the Iranian revolutionary model
Raz Zimmt, PhD1
1. After the Islamic revolution, the Iranian regime focused on two interconnected objectives: first, to stabilize and solidify the Islamic regime while ensuring its continuity; second, to implement the revolutionary Ideology that was the driving force for the clerics, being a means of building a model Islamic society and curing the ailments that were a significant factor behind the revolution. The key ambition of Iran’s leaders following the revolution was to bring the revolutionary ideals to life as a means of solving the problems of society and establishing an Islamic regime, as well as presenting the revolution in Iran as an example to be followed by all other Muslim societies.2
2. Islamic revolutionary ideology has and still does play an important role in furthering the objectives of the regime and the political interests of the Iranian state. At a conference held in December 2007, dedicated to promoting the concept of “soft power” in Iran’s foreign policy, Ali Larijani, then the Supreme Leader’s representative to the Supreme National Security Council, stressed the importance of ideology in Iran’s policy, and said that one of the characteristics that set the Islamic republic apart and give it strength is its ability to inspire others.3
Domestic challenge: erosion of the concept of “rule of the religious jurisprudent”
3. The regime’s ability to present the Islamic revolution and the concept of “rule of the religious jurisprudent” (velayat-e faqih) as a successful model both to domestic public opinion and to other Muslim societies faced increasing challenges over the years. Since the outbreak of the revolution, and all the more so after the death of revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, intellectuals and clerics called for diminishing the involvement of senior figures within the religious establishment in state affairs, and challenged attempts made by the Islamic regime to enforce its official interpretation. Any view with the potential of undermining the status of clerics and allowing an interpretation that does not depend on the religious establishment is perceived as a significant theological, ideological, and political threat to the regime and the Supreme Leader’s status.
4. Thus, in recent years the Iranian regime has been pursuing a comprehensive campaign to tighten its control over the country’s religious life and religious expressions that do not coincide with the interpretation favored by the current religious leadership of Iran. Signs of the campaign are evident in the encroachment on the freedom of those clerics who challenge the concept of “rule of the religious jurisprudent”, the intensifying fight on expressions of popular Islam and Shi’ite messianism, and the suppression of Sufi orders.4
5. Judging by the recent developments in Iran, criticism against the regime and its worldview is on the rise, no longer being limited to small circles of intellectuals, clerics, and regime opponents. This past year the ideological crisis facing the regime could be seen even within the conservative camp itself. The conflict between the conservative religious establishment, under the leadership of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and supporters of the political faction close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his office chief Rahim Esfandiar Masha’i, is a manifestation not only of an internal power struggle in Iran’s political elite, but also of a fierce ideological battle for the identity of the Islamic republic. The messianic and anti-clerical views of the president’s allies (referred to by their opponents as the “deviant faction”), the emphasis of the national-cultural component of Iranian identity over Islam, and the challenge to the status of the clerics led by the Supreme Leader are perceived by the conservative establishment as a significant threat. The increasing power of this political and ideological faction in the conservative camp reflects further erosion in the status of Iran’s ruling clerics and the legitimacy of the rule of the religious jurisprudent.5 The growing social and economic distress in Iran makes this erosion all the more severe, bringing the regime face to face with yet another challenge to its stability and ability to contain the intensifying political protest, whose momentum derives to a great extent from Iran’s younger generation.
The Iranian revolutionary model and the Arab Spring: between vision and reality
6. The difficulties facing the Iranian leadership in its attempt to portray the Islamic regime as a successful revolutionary model are evident not only at home but also among Muslim societies in the Arab world. The political upheavals Arab countries have seen this past year have opened up new opportunities for Iran to expand its relations with the Arab world. Iran considers any Islamic awakening—in fact, any struggle waged in the name of Islam—a sign of its success in spreading its revolutionary philosophy and a reflection of its key position in the world of Islam. Encouraged by the increasing power of the Islamic movements, Iran is presenting them to domestic, Muslim, and global public opinion as the beginning of a turning point driven by the Islamic revolution—one that is led by Iran and will someday soon change the face of the region.6
7. Iran’s intent to take advantage of the developments in the Arab world to consolidate its influence and spread its revolutionary philosophy was well demonstrated in the opening session of the international Islamic Awakening conference held in Tehran in September 2011, and could be seen in the Supreme Leader’s remarks. In a speech delivered to conference-goers, Khamenei called on the nations of the region to work towards Islamic unity and be wary of the conspiracies of Western countries, which strive to maintain control of the region. He said that it is necessary to preserve the Islamic principles which, according to him, are behind the uprisings in the Arab world, and avoid deviating from the revolutionary path and the slogans of the revolution.7 In recent months, senior Iranian officials have repeatedly portrayed the developments in the Arab world as indicating the formation of a new Middle East inspired by the Islamic revolution, which will put an end to the Western hegemony in the region. An editorial published by the conservative daily Resalat after the fall of President Mubarak’s regime in Egypt said that the future has opportunities in store for Iran. Mubarak’s fall is a reflection of divine victory and proof that revolutions in the Middle East are inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran. The developments in the Arab world, which started with the victory of the Islamic revolution, are now reaching their peak with the fall of the corrupt Arab governments, the article said.8
8. Even though the upheavals in the Arab world have opened up new opportunities for Iran, it is becoming clearer that the country’s ability to function as a role model for the Arab world is highly doubtful. The ability to copy Iran’s cleric-ruled government to other Muslim countries—let alone Sunni countries—was doubtful to begin with. Without a significant alternative Islamic government model in the region, however, Iran could gain a great deal of popularity with the Arab public. For many years, the Iranian regime claimed to combine religious Islamic values with republican-democratic characteristics reflecting the people’s sovereignty, and followed an independent foreign policy that opposed the West and Israel. As part of its efforts to advance its influence in the Arab world while making use of its “soft power”, Iran tried to pitch the Islamic revolution to Arab nations as a successful model to imitate. The Iranian regime faced secular and pro-Western regimes that drifted farther and farther away from their citizens, and presented with some level of success an alternative government model that challenges Western influence in the region and dares to stand up to Israel, the United States, and its allies in the Arab world.
9. The establishment of a new political order in the Arab world, where an ever-increasing role is played by Islamic movements, casts doubts on Iran’s ability to continue functioning as an attractive model for Arab societies. The collapse of the secular and pro-Western dictatorships and the possible political integration of Arab Islamic movements into the government may further reduce the appeal the Iranian model has for the Arab public. The choice facing Arab societies in this new political reality is no longer between a secular, pro-Western government pattern on one hand and an Iran-style revolutionary, anti-Western Islamic government on the other. Instead, that choice is between a Sunni religious model seemingly willing to incorporate democratic elements, and an authoritarian, Shi’ite-theocratic model ruled by clerics, where any manifestation of political resistance is brutally suppressed. The challenge facing the Iranian regime is all the greater for the fact that an alternative Islamic government model has already emerged in Turkey in recent years, and unlike the Iranian model, it has significant economic achievements already to its credit.
10. While public statements made by Iranian officials portray the developments in the Arab world as a manifestation of the Islamic revolution’s success, Iran is also aware of the risks posed by these upheavals. A report on the effect of the events in the Arab world on the Islamic republic, released by the Majles Research Center in April 2011, said that the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa create opportunities but also threats for Iran. The center warned that the developments in the Arab world may have severe consequences for Iran’s regime and national security unless it adopts a well thought-out strategy towards the upheavals undergone by the region.9
11. The discourse in the Iranian press on the Arab Spring also reflects increasing concerns over Iran’s status, particularly in light of Turkey’s political initiatives in the region. In September 2011, the Iranian Diplomacy website argued that Iran has to take advantage of the Islamic Awakening conference to expand its influence on public opinion in the Middle East and spread the Iranian Islamic model in the region. The website took issue with the fact that Iran’s influence on the events in the Arab world remains limited, while Turkey is putting considerable efforts into strengthening its position as regional leader and using its influence to establish a political order.10
12. Prof. Sadeq Zibakalam, one of the major reformist intellectuals in Iran, also argued recently that the Islamic movements in the Arab world are inspired by the Turkish model. In an article published by the reformist daily Sharq following the victory of the Islamists in the first round of elections for the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, Zibakalam said that the Islamist mainstream, including the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is essentially democratic and does not even follow a radical anti-Western approach. This worldview allows Turkey to cement its status as the major, most influential power in the Arab world.11
13. The assessment of Turkey’s influence on the developments in the Arab world through Iranian eyes may be exaggerated. Despite the outward enthusiasm seen in the welcome given to Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visits to Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in October 2011, the Arab world has many doubts and concerns about the validity of Turkey’s experience with Arab countries, as well as its true intentions.12 It is evident, however, that the Iranian model is viewed as even less appealing compared to the Turkish one, and that Iran’s status in the Arab world is growing ever weaker. A recent public opinion poll conducted by the Arab American Institute in six Arab countries (Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, and the UAE) found that in the past several years there has been a considerable decrease in sympathy towards Iran in the Arab world, and that most of the Arab public believes that Iran plays a negative role in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region.13
14. The internal developments in Iran and the upheavals in the Arab world pose significant challenges for the Iranian regime. The erosion in the status of the clerics, the growing resistance to the concept of “rule of the religious jurisprudent”, and the increasing difficulty to present the Islamic revolution as a successful model to be imitated by Muslim societies cast doubts on the future of the regime.
15. In the short term, the Iranian leadership may be able to eliminate any threat to the stability of the regime and take advantage of new opportunities to advance its influence in the Arab world. However, the increasing power of alternative ideological views at home, coupled with the emergence of competing Islamic government models in the Arab world, may make it even more difficult for Iran to realize its medium and long-term objectives.
1 Raz Zimmt, PhD, is a researcher at the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel-Aviv University and editor of Spotlight on Iran, a periodical published weekly by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.
2 David Menashri, Iran after Khomeini: Revolutionary Ideology versus National Interests (in Hebrew; Tel-Aviv, 1999), p. 15.
4 For more details, see Raz Zimmt, Islam in the Islamic Republic: The Regime’s Struggle to Maintain its Monopoly over Religious Life, Iran Pulse #13, July 19, 2007, The Center for Iranian Studies at the Tel-Aviv University (http://tau.ac.il/humanities/iranian_studies/pulse13.eng.html).
5 For further information on the political and ideological struggle between the traditional-conservative faction and the “deviant faction”, see Raz Zimmt, “An Enemy from within: The Iranian Regime and the New Political Challenge”, Middle East Media Monitor, June 2011, Foreign Policy Research Institute, http://www.fpri.org/enotes/201106.zimmt.iran.pdf.
6 Menashri, p. 73.
7 Fars News Agency, September 17, 2011.
8 Resalat, February 22, 2011.
9 For the full report, see http://rc.majlis.ir/fa/report/show/789029.>
10 Iranian Diplomacy website (www.irdiplomacy.ir), September 18, 2011.
11 The daily Sharq, December 3, 2011.
12 Ofra Bengio, “Turkish democracy: a role model?” (in Hebrew), Middle East Junction, Vol. 1, Issue 12, December 8, 2011.
13 For the full report, see http://www.aaiusa.org/reports/arab-attitudes-toward-iran-2011.>