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Middle East divided over Iranian protests

Wesley Dockery
January 3, 2018

The anti-government protests in Iran and Tehran's reactions are being watched with great concern in the West. But what do major regional players make of the events there?

Protests in Iran
Image: dolatebahar

The protests over the country's struggling economy, corruption, increasing food prices and the Iranian government's involvement in other conflicts in the region like Syria are the largest display of public unrest since the country's disputed presidential election in 2009.

The country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded to the unrest by saying that the enemies of Iran "have allied and used the various means they possess including money, weapons, politics and intelligence services to trouble the Islamic Republic." 

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blames unrest on Iran's enemies

Governments taking sides

So how are other governments in the region are reacting to the protests in Iran? Dr. Sanam Vakil, an associate fellow at the UK think tank Chatham House, says that initially most of them "ignored" the coverage. However, as the protests continue to make headlines, she believes that they will have to acknowledge them to possibly discourage people in their countries from also taking to the streets. 

Vakil told DW that "Iran very much wants to disassociate these protests from the Arab Spring" —  a series of popular revolts that began in Tunisia in 2011 due to economic discontent and spread to other countries in the region such as Libya, Egypt and Syria. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, the ruling governments were brought down by the people — a fate the Iranian government is obviously keen to avoid.     

Iranian Green movement protests
Iran's current anti-government protests are the largest since 2009Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Stringer

Read moreIran protests: 'Isolated regime unlikely to survive'

All of the Gulf States with the exception of Qatar support the current protests in the hope that they trigger a legitimacy crisis for the Iranian government. Geo-strategically, these countries are competing with Iran for power in the region and are hoping that the protests undermine Iranian influence in the so-called Shiite Crescent — a term used by some scholars to describe Iran's influence and support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the Houthi rebel groups in Yemen, the Shiite Hezbollah paramilitary organization in Lebanon and the current government in Iraq. 

"These Gulf countries also have to be careful because they are not in a position to really support the demonstrations when they don't allow them to take place on their own soil," Vakil said.

Qatar and Turkey do not support these demonstrations and argue that they were orchestrated from the outside. Coverage on Al Jazeera Arabic, which often skews towards the views of the Turkish and Qatari governments, has been supportive of the conspiratorial notion that these protests are the result of an "external plot."

Hezbollah and Syria flags on a tank
In Lebanon and Syria, Iran has been supportive of the Shiite paramilitary organization HezbollahImage: Reuters/O. Sanadiki

Reactions on the streets

Mohammad Mohsen Abu al-Noor, a political researcher in Egypt, says that large parts of the Shiite communities in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen "completely support the Iranian government regardless of the fact that Iranian interests might conflict with the national security interests in their own country." Meanwhile, non-Shiites, says al-Noor, "hope it [the demonstrations] will end the tide of Shiite and Iranian intervention in the surrounding Arab countries."

However, reactions in many Arab countries should be viewed carefully and critically, according to Ghassan al-Attiyah, the head of the Iraqi Institute for Development and Democracy, given that the regimes in many of these countries control the media output. 

So what happens next? That, says Chatham House's Sanam Vakil, depends on the Iranian government's response should the protests continue. "If the government crackdown is really repressive, we could see a few years of silence," she said. Many of the protesters, however, originally supported the Iranian government which, she said, means that "this sort of dissent, even if it is quelled, is never really going to go away."