Iran said on Monday it hopes mass anti-government protests in Egypt will lead to the emergence of a more Islamic Middle East that will stand up to its enemies, Israel and the United States.
The Islamic Republic, locked in a standoff with the West over its nuclear programme, sees gains for its own geopolitical influence in the region if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key U.S. and Israeli ally, is swept aside.
But Iranian opposition politicians, encouraged by scenes of “people power” in Tunis and Cairo, are hoping they will prompt Tehran’s hardline rulers to allow greater freedom at home.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, setting out Iran’s official stance, said the people of Egypt and Tunisia had left foreign powers “bewildered” by rising up against U.S.-backed governments.
“With (the region) assuming a new shape and the developments under way, (we hope) we would be able to see a Middle East that is Islamic and powerful and also that withstands the Zionist occupiers,” he told a weekly news conference, using Iran’s term for Israel, which it does not recognise.
Iran has praised the Egyptian protests, saying they echo the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
However, Tehran fears that uprising in Egypt could revive anti-government unrest that jolted Iran after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The Revolutionary Guards quelled the mass protests against a vote the authorities insist was the healthiest for three decades.
Iran’s reformist opposition, which rejected the poll result as rigged, says the uprising in Egypt is inspired by the Iranian nation’s fight for democracy in 2009.
“The slogans of the Iranian nation who took to the streets in 2009 … have reached Egypt,” said reformist presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi, opposition website Kaleme reported on Saturday.
“Now it is time for Iranian … rulers to show wisdom and respect the nation’s demand to avoid facing violence,” Kaleme quoted another senior opposition figure, Amir Arjomand, as saying.
Iran, the only country in the region with no diplomatic ties with Egypt, hopes that fall of the Egyptian government will lead to an Islamist takeover and boost its political power in the region, analysts say.
“A shift of power in Egypt from a U.S.-linked government to an Islamist regime will strengthen Iran,” said political analyst Ahmad Ziaie. “The balance will switch in favour of Iran.”
Mehmanparast said the emergence of “popular” governments would usher in an era of greatly improved relations with Iran.
However, the Iranians are overwhelmingly Persian Shi’ite Muslims, seen as historical adversaries by Sunni Arabs.
Attempts to restore relations between the two countries have long been stymied by Iran’s refusal to change the name of a Tehran street renamed in honour of an Islamist miliant who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he feared Egypt might adopt an Islamic system like Iran’s, putting the peace treaty with Israel in jeopardy.
Netanyahu said his real fear was that “an organised Islamist body” might seize power in Egypt, an apparent reference to the banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood which has links to the Iranian-backed Palestinian group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said protests in Egypt and the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali “proved that the global arrogance’s era of domination and control of the region has come to an end”, state television reported on Monday. “Global arrogance” is Iran’s term for the United States.
Mehmanparast taunted Washington for its mixed signals about support for Mubarak, seen as a vital U.S. ally in the region.
“This popular wave … because it is in line with … severance of dependence on arrogant powers, will most definitely jeopardise the interests of these powers,” he said. “That is why you see an agitation and bewilderment of their foreign policy.”