The Iranian New Year marks the first day of spring on the solar calendar. New Year’s day, called “Nowrooz” in Persian, meaning “The New Day,” has not only cultural significance, but also serious political connotations in Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives his annual New Year speech on this day, which primarily serves to set the domestic economic and political tone for the year ahead.
Khamenei’s New Year’s message in March 2011, about three months after the start of the so-called “Arab Spring,” provides insight as to how Iran’s leader viewed the region as a whole as its neighbors erupted into revolution.
By the time of Khamenei’s address, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had already fled to Saudi Arabia (January 14th) following Tunisia’s uprising. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11th, ending his thirty-year presidency. On March 14th, 1000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 troops from the UAE arrived in Bahrain to quell protests in which tens of thousands of Bahrainis called for greater political freedom and equality. On March 18th, government forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh fired upon protesters in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, resulting in 52 deaths. The following day, March 19th, NATO military forces began their military campaign against targets in Libya, pursuant to a Security Council resolution that ostensibly aimed to protect protesters challenging the regime of Muammar Ghaddafi.
Taking the stage in front of a large audience in the northern city of Mashhad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei began his 2011 New Year’s address by condemning the atrocities committed by Ghaddhfi’s forces, as well as NATO’s military strikes against Libya. Claiming that America and the West were “only after Libyan oil resources,” the Supreme Leader accused the United States and other Western governments of “trying to establish a foothold in Libya so that they can have control over the future governments of Tunisia and Egypt.”
Khamenei told the crowd that popular movements in the region “indicate a fundamental change in Arab and Islamic countries,” adding that “the presence of the people on the streets and their religious orientation are two characteristics of these popular movements.”
As the only Shia majority country involved in the regional uprisings, Bahrain was a particular target of Khamenei’s criticism. The Supreme Leader lambasted Bahrain’s ruler, saying, “the uprising of the people of Bahrain is essentially the same as the uprising of the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen,” and adding, “the people of Bahrain only want free elections. Is this too much to expect?”
Khamenei went on to express genuine support for “all regional uprisings,” maintaining that Iran did not distinguish between Sunni or Shiite majority countries. “Iran supports all the popular movements which are under the slogan of Islam and (seeking) freedom…We don’t distinguish between Gaza, Palestine, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. We have supported Palestine for 32 years, and they are not Shiites. It is not an issue of Shiites and Sunnis…It is the protest of a nation against oppression,” Khamenei said.
In early February 2011, Khamenei made a rare appearance at the podium for Friday prayers at Tehran University to provide his take on ongoing regional developments. In what would soon become a contentious statement, Iran’s Supreme Leader described the developments as an “Islamic awakening,” and compared the popular uprisings to Iran’s own 1979 revolution.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood immediately dismissed Khamenei’s characterization. In a written statement, the organization said: “The Muslim Brotherhood regards the revolution as the Egyptian people’s revolution, not an Islamic revolution…the Egyptian people’s revolution includes Muslims, Christians and is from all sects and political tendencies.” This would become a common refrain, as experts, academics, and regional observers criticized Khamenei’s depiction of the Arab uprisings as the fruit of Iran’s own revolution over thirty years prior.
After three years and plenty of domestic turmoil, where do Iran and the Arab Spring countries currently stand from a diplomatic perspective?
Although Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood did not see eye-to-eye with Khamenei’s characterization of the country’s uprising, Mubarak’s fall did usher in an eventual reassessment of Egyptian-Iranian relations. Two years after Mubarak’s ouster, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a historic three-day trip to Egypt and was greeted by Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. This marked the first time in three decades that a top Iranian official had visited the country. Although the two governments squabbled over their differing stances on the Syrian crisis, the death knell for warming relations between Iran and Egypt only came after Morsi’s ouster in July 2013. Just two weeks ago, on February 24th, 2014, Morsi sat in a sound-proof glass cage as an Egyptian prosecutor accused the ousted president and Muslim Brotherhood member of essentially committing espionage and passing state secrets to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).
On January 16th 2014, Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly approved the country’s new constitution and held a ceremony at the National Assembly on February 7th inviting foreign dignitaries and government officials to witness a historic moment in the country’s post-Ben Ali period. Iran’s Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani flew to Tunis to be on hand, and a few weeks later in February, President Hassan Rouhani met with the Tunisian envoy to Iran, calling Tunisia a “pioneer of democracy in the region.” Iranian-Tunisian relations prior to Ben-Ali’s departure in 2011 were rocky as Iran viewed Tunisia’s close relationship with the United States as suspect. Iran’s Supreme Leader even went as far as saying Ben-Ali was an agent of the CIA in a February 2011 Friday prayers sermon in Tehran. During that sermon, Khamenei ridiculed the fact that, during Ben-Ali’s reign, permits were required to build mosques and perform public Friday prayers. The Supreme Leader also rebuked the Ben-Ali regime for prohibiting women from wearing the hijab.
After harshly criticizing NATO and western intervention in Libya, Iran was slow to officially recognize the National Transitional Council (NTC), the country’s interim government. Realizing that dynamics on the ground were changing and that the Ghaddafi regime would soon fall, Iran finally extended recognition to the governing council in October of 2011 after Ghaddafi was killed by opposition forces. Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast congratulated the Libyan people on their victory saying that “Qaddafi’s death meant the end of history’s despots and oppressors.” Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi later revealed that Iran secretly provided humanitarian supplies to the National Transitional Council in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The following month in November of 2011, Salehi also traveled to Benghazi and personally and met with former chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdel Jalil. Since then, the Iranian government has expressed interest in forging closer ties with Libya and helping in efforts to rebuild the country’s economic infrastructure. But relations between the two countries have remained at arm’s length because of Iran’s continued alliance with Syria’s Bashar al Assad, and Libya’s support for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition.
Relations between Yemen and Iran are at an all-time low. In January 2014, Ali Asghar Assadi, Iran’s economic attaché, was shot as he was leaving the Iranian ambassador’s residence in the southern Hadda district of Sana’a. Assadi was shot while resisting gunman who were attempting to kidnap him, and eventually died of his wounds at the hospital. Later that same month, on January 25th, the Iranian government publicly denied that an embassy official in Yemen, who had been kidnapped the previous summer, was found beheaded in central Sana’a. The Yemenis have long accused Iran of stoking sectarian strife in the country, by providing arms to the Houthis, a Shi’ite group in the northern region that has been fighting the government.
Since engaging in mutually harsh criticism in 2011, Bahrain has recently taken a more positive diplomatic approach toward Iran by welcoming the ongoing nuclear negotiations and the “joint plan of action” agreed to by the P5+1 and Iran in November of 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa has publicly stated that progress on the nuclear file “would bring peace of mind for the region.” He also called on Iran to take “serious actions and steps that would allay the fears of the regional countries regarding interference in internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups inside those countries.”
While other Arab Spring countries were continuously, publicly discussed from 2011 to 2012, Iranian authorities hardly mentioned Syria. Iran’s military and economic support of Bashar al Assad is no secret, and its physical presence in Syria is well known, as a result of now infamous video footage recovered from a film director, who worked with the IRGC and was killed by Syrian rebels during a firefight. Iran props up and supports Assad, in order to maintain the strategic triangular relationship between itself, Syria, and Hezbollah. But, the country also supports the beleaguered Syrian leader because of events related to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. During this bitter conflict, Bashar’s father was the only Arab leader to support Iran as the new revolutionary government fought against Saddam Hussain. Even though former Iranian president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani is the most well-known Iranian official to criticize on-going developments in Syria, the Iranian government has continuously defended its support of Assad. Even the reformist candidate in the 2013 Iranian presidential elections, Mohammed Aref, was quoted speaking about the necessity of supporting Syria because, “Confrontation in Syria will precede a confrontation with Hezbollah, which will then lead to confrontation with Iran,” warned Aref in June of 2013.
The Commander of the IRGC’s Qods force, Ghassem Sulemani, recently commented on Iran’s role in the region, pulling no punches with regard to Iran’s intentions as a regional leader. “In the past, a number of Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan have tried to claim leadership of the Muslim world, but no country other than Iran can handle this great responsibility…By supporting revolutionary movements and Islamic fighters, and defending Muslims and Islam against the aggression that takes place in the Muslim world, Iran has been able to take on the leadership role of the Islamic world,” Sulemani said.