Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

What Do The Arabs Think?

Posted in The Iranian Presidential Elections by Dan on June 17, 2009

The last time I posted a response dealing with the statistical anomaly of the 2009 Iranian elections, several developments were occurring on an hour-by-hour basis.

First and foremost, hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters took to the streets within Iran’s capital to protest the questionable re-election of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinjead.

Secondly, the democratic opening that so many young Iranians were hoping for was squandered by recurrent counts of voting-fraud in favor of Iran’s conservative hardliner.  We are still seeing the immediate effects of this ballot-box coup through the numerous cases of looting: not to mention the clashes between the Islamic Republic’s security services and the mass of protesters that have resulted in a few civilian deaths.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the inaccurate electoral results has placed a tremendous amount of unwanted pressure on the Supreme Leader’s legitimacy.  In fact, residents of Tehran are so enraged that Iran’s Khamenei has agreed to investigate claims of abuse at the polls.  The powerful Guardian Council has gone a step further by declaring its willingness to conduct a limited recount, all the while calling for calm and national unity throughout the country.

Such widespread resentment is undoubtedly unprecedented for the traditionally-unchallenged Iranian autocracy, given the fact the Islamic Republic’s top leadership has often been able to suppress previous the constant calls for democracy and progression.  However, while U.S and world media has continued to cover the social unrest within Iran itself, very little attention is being paid to the Arab world.  What are politicians inside Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf States saying in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s “wide-margin” of victory?

According to a variety of reports, including sources within Iran and throughout the region, the reactions are anything but clear.  Saudi Arabia, a country that considers itself the primary defender of Sunni Arab rights in the Middle East, has labeled the Iranian election as a primary example of undemocratic politics.  As Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed in a Saudi daily newspaper comments, “falsifying the results is the easiest of tasks for a religious-security regime that does not believe in leaving to chance what it considers right.”  In other words, the Saudi’s strongly believe that Khamenei deliberately discarded the voices of the Iranian people in the hopes of restoring his dominance in Tehran’s government.  These statements are rather harsh, considering that Saudi Arabia routinely embraces authoritarian principles in its domestic affairs as well.

Nevertheless, it appears that Ahmadinejad’s re-election has created further strain between Riyadh and Tehran.  The Saudi’s now have an additional factor to worry about other than Iran’s developing nuclear program: they must now deal with an Ahmadinejad administration that will continue to advance a policy of Shiite dominance in the Muslim world.  As the major Sunni player in the region, such an agenda is especially concerning to a Saudi leadership that primarily relies on the United States for security guarantees.

While Saudi Arabia is clearly anti-Ahmadinejad (or more generally speaking, anti-Iranian), the smaller Gulf Arab governments are exhibiting a quite restraint with respect to Iran’s presidential election.  Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain have personally congratulated Ahmadinjad on his success throughout the campaign.  This positive sentiment could simply be a formality between the Gulf states and a larger Iranian power.  However, this is unlikely.  A more likely cause of this Arab praise may have something to do with Iran’s increasing influence in the Middle East, as well as the Islamic Republic’s technical improvements in weaponry and technology.  This is precisely why Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be worried:  the smaller Sunni nations on the Arabian Peninsula view Iran as a force that should not be reckoned with.

While Khamenei may be dealing with trouble at home, his decision to thwart internal democracy may have helped his regime pick up some unlikely allies for the future.  As the Iranians prepare for a potential showdown with the United States and Israel over its nuclear program, the addition of any Gulf ally is a remarkable achievement for Tehran’s mullahs.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Reuters and the Associated Press (authors Ali Akbar Dareini and Nasser Karimi) contributed to this blog

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