Throughout the Middle East and the world at large, there has been a great debate during the past nine months about the origin, implications and future of the so-called "Arab spring". Everywhere in the region, academics, journalists and analysts are trying to examine various aspects and dimensions of this unexpected and baffling avalanche of events. Everywhere, that is, with the exception of Islamic Iran.
There are no Arab spring surprises in Iran. Iranian leaders as well as the state-run media view the Arab uprising without ambiguity. Their approach to these momentous events is very simple and straightforward.
To begin with, Iranian leaders regard the Arab spring not as a socio-political movement that aims to democratize Arab societies but rather as what they call an Islamic awakening. One after another, Iranian leaders praise this glamorous Islamic awakening. One might think this is a mere formality–that, given the intense religious feelings that many Iranian leaders hold, they simply prefer to call the Arab spring an Islamic awakening. But this is much more than a mere label. Not only have they altered the name, but more importantly the leaders have altered the entire contents of the movement as well.
Thus, this "Great Islamic Awakening" has allegedly been influenced and inspired by the radical and revolutionary Islamic notions developed by the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979. That is to say, it is anti-western, anti-American and, above all, anti-Israel. The Arabs, according to the Iranian leadership and media, were against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the rest of the Arab leaders not so much because they were ruthless dictators but rather because they were primarily pro-western and enjoyed good relations with the Jewish state.
The fact that Mubarak had good relations with Israel and recognized it counts for far more in the eyes of Iranian leaders than his autocratic style of government. Mubarak’s good relations with Washington caused more resentment among the Egyptian people than the fact that he locked up his opponents in jail or failed to hold free elections. The general coverage of the Arab spring in Iran is so distorted that if you have no access to alternative media, you would be inclined to believe that the Arabs are not seeking democratic changes but rather only want to break relations with Israel and the US. There is no reporting of the political reforms the Arabs seek; of their opposition to political prosecutions, detention of political opponents and press censorship; and of a host of other demands such as the rule of law and free elections.
It was against this background that the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo received massive coverage in Iran, as if this was all the huge Arab uprising was about. Any comment by an Islamist that is hostile or threatening towards the West, the US or Israel receives widespread coverage, while comments by the more liberal and secular as well as moderate Islamists who do not seek confrontation with the West and do not seek to destroy the state of Israel fail to get any attention in Iran regardless of how significant the commentator might be.
There is a second significant underlying approach to the Arab spring that shapes the Iranian interpretation of the issue. Many Iranian leaders perceive the Islamic regime to be in an ongoing ideological struggle with "the decadent West". The Great Islamic Awakening is seen as a clear indication of Islam’s moral superiority and a blow to its rival. Given that Arab leaders struggling desperately for their very survival are strategic allies of the West, their demise is in fact the defeat of the West.
If the Arab spring was interpreted as a mere social struggle for political reform and democracy, then it would offer no ideological gain for Iran’s Islamic leaders against their enemy. The ideological dimension of the struggle against the West is so crucial for the Islamic leaders that they have even interpreted current protests against economic hardship in several western countries, including the Wall Street occupation movements, as a clear sign of the collapse of western civilization.
But here we encounter the dilemma created for Iran by Syria. The entire Arab spring would have constituted a moral victory for Islamic Iran over the West were it not, alas, for the Syrian factor, which does not at all fit into the grand theory of the Islamic awakening. With much difficulty, the Iranian leadership managed ultimately to portray the Libyan regime under Muammar Gaddafi as a western protege. To rank Gaddafi as a western puppet was the only way to portray the Arab uprising as an Islamic awakening against the West. But Bashar Assad could not possibly be portrayed as a western ally. Yet there is no escape from the reality of the huge protest against his regime.
For all intents and purposes, the uprising in Syria punches a huge hole in the Islamic awakening theory. Initially, Iranian leaders as well as the state-run media simply ignored events in Syria. But when some independent Iranian writers raised the issue of the brutal suppression of the Syrian people, the leadership was obliged to comment on the crisis in Syria. It has maintained simply that the "nature of the uprising and protests in Syria is different from the rest of the Arab world. Whereas the uprising in the other Arab countries is genuine, in Syria it is Israeli and American agents who are catalyzing unrest against the heroic and revolutionary regime."