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This episode comes on the heels of a February 14 Green Movement rally, designed to show support for pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa, in which opposition groups claimed over 1,500 protesters were arrested. However, the official response from Iranian police was that “dozens” of people were arrested, and a parliamentary committee set up to investigate the events said only “small groups of trouble-makers turned up.”
An equally common talking point by Iranian officials has been one of moral equivalence and outright indignation. A case in point is the response given by Mohammad Javad Larijani, secretary of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, to a recent UN report that alleges Iran has intensified its crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists and opposition groups: “Those countries like the United States that have an embarrassing human rights record [of their own] are not in a position to advise Iran on human rights issues.”
Iran’s denial-fest may be attributed to increased hubris arising from the fact it has taken advantage of the ongoing discord in the Arab world to strengthen its pursuit of becoming the world’s sole Islamic power.
For starters, Iran flexed its military muscle when it recently sent two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. That event was sandwiched between a naval courtesy call to Qatar in January and joint naval maneuvers with Oman in March. As one analyst said, Iran increasingly views itself “as a pure regional hegemon because of the uprisings. They’re taking advantage of the strategic change.”
That strategic change is reflected in the rise of new political opportunities, such as in Egypt, where Iran is no longer plagued by its longtime nemesis, Hosni Mubarak. It may also witness a new Egyptian government that is not so tightly bound to US policies.
Even in Libya, Iran has managed to play both sides of the street. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has condemned Gadhafi’s attack on rebel forces so as to not alienate his Arab league allies—Syria, Iraq and Lebanon – who had asked for a no fly-zone.
However, he also issued typical anti-American, anti-Western rhetoric by saying, “I hope the European and US governments do not intervene in the affairs of this region…I think the Libyan people, can decide their future.”
Finally, the real prize for Iran remains the crumbling of Sunni-ruled Gulf states in the wake of rising Shiite hostility. As events unfold, Iran sees in Bahrain, for example, a potential beachhead for Iranian influence in the region.
That’s why, when Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain, Ahmadinejad, with no hint of irony, given Iran’s approach to its own dissident movement, was able to say with a straight face, “The people’s demands for change must be respected. How is it possible to stop waves of humanity with military force?”
Ahmadinejad’s remarks were later topped by Ramin Mehmanparast who said: “People have some legitimate demands and they are expressing them peacefully. It should not be responded to violently … and we expect their demands be fulfilled through correct means.”
In fact, Iranian expectations are extremely high these days. As the uprisings in the Mideast continue to unfold with no clear end in sight, Iran finds itself one of the few beneficiaries of this ongoing strife. It is one charge the Iranians would probably not bother to deny.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.
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