News / Middle East

Demand for Change in Middle East Not Lost on Opposition in Iran

Political turmoil in the Middle East sparks new demonstrations in Iran
Political turmoil in the Middle East sparks new demonstrations in Iran

Political turmoil has spread across the Middle East, forced quick ends to decades of autocratic rule in Egypt and Tunisia and sparked new demonstrations in Iran.

Anti-government protests are not new to Iran. There have been periodic demonstrations there since 2009, following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election.

But these new protests are causing Iran's leaders new problems, say analysts here in Washington: How can Iranian authorities praise protests elsewhere in the Middle East, tying them to Iran's own Islamic Revolution in 1979, and then show no mercy to opposition groups in their own country?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently noted what she called the hypocrisy of the Iranian government.

"A regime which over the last three weeks has constantly hailed what went on in Egypt, and now when given the opportunity to afford their people the same rights as they called for on behalf of the Egyptian people, once again illustrate their true nature," said Clinton.

Jim Phillips at the Heritage Foundation says Iran's leaders seem to be in denial.

"It is an echo of what happened in 2009 when the Green Movement rose up to protest obviously stolen elections,” Phillips said. “Some of the background is similar. As in the Arab world, in Iran there is a huge baby boom, it faces a grim economic future because of high unemployment, rising food prices, housing shortages, and they also have a lack of political freedom."

Cameron Abadi at Foreign Policy magazine sees irony in Iran's reaction to the uprisings around it.

"Iran’s influence, as it currently stands, could very well increase because of these revolutions in the Arab countries,” said Abadi. “At the same time, the people of Iran themselves (are) craving change. So it requires praising what is happening in neighboring countries while suppressing what is happening in one’s own. That is a tenuous position.”

Jim Phillips says U.S. President Barack Obama should reexamine his policy on human rights violations in Iran in view of the turmoil in the Middle East.

"It is surprising that the administration would leap so quickly to support the Egyptian opposition, when it bent over backwards not to do that in Iran,” Phillips added. “To me it is a much easier call in Iran and even in Libya."

Barbara Slavin at the Atlantic Council says the opposition movement in Iran is indigenous and White House influence on it is limited. And she also believes the Iranian government might, in the short run, benefit from the turmoil in the Middle East.

“Certainly they get some benefit out of seeing characters like [Egypt’s] Mubarak and [Tunisia’s] Ben Ali fall,” said Slavin. “They can say that U.S.- backed dictatorships are falling. But where once people in those countries used to look at Iran with a certain admiration, they liked the fact that Ahmadinejad was so tough on Israel. But if more authentic and popular governments come to power in Arab countries, they are not going to need him as a hero.”

What people want across the Middle East, Slavin and the others say, is political freedom, and that may still come to Iran. But for now, any craving for reform there faces a brutal government response.

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