Tehran
Demonstrations in Tehran. Photo by AFP
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Conventional wisdom in the West, as expressed in many media commentaries this week, is that the Middle Eastern masses that are demanding full rights, freedom of expression, employment and equality are almost unstoppable. Thus, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia will inevitably be repeated in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. According to this logic, only regimes that can adapt themselves to the times and give their citizens rights stand a chance of surviving.

However, the region's dictators might draw a very different lesson. Even though the confrontation in Egypt occasionally turned violent, President Hosni Mubarak refrained from massacring his opponents. Dictators from Iran to Morocco may conclude that they need to use maximum, immediate force if they do not want to end up like Mubarak. It's hard to imagine the Iranian ayatollahs showing similar composure in the face of the new challenge posed to them this week by the Green demonstrations.

Israel, in total contrast to Europe and the United States, reacted sourly to the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt; if other regimes follow suit, the Muslim Brotherhood might rise to power in their stead. In the case of Iran, though, almost any change will be good news (unless the even more extreme Revolutionary Guards seize full power there ).

The well-known difficulty of predicting the masses' reaction under a repressive regime is compounded by Tehran's relatively broad blackout, which is blocking information from reaching the outside world. In Egypt, where the few Internet providers are under centralized control, the Mubarak regime succeeded in cutting off the Internet almost completely for a few critical days. In Iran we are now getting fragmented reports accompanied by blurred cell-phone photographs.

Internal disputes

Still, considerable international attention was focused on the events in Iran this week. One reason for this is that after Egypt's revolution, the Obama administration is taking more risks in encouraging the opposition in Tehran (which it feared to do during the failed Green revolution of June 2009 ). Another reason is the total failure of the global media and intelligence services to predict the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Now every shred of new information from the Middle East is getting close attention.

In 2009, hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, demonstrated throughout Iran's big cities. Monday's demonstrations drew far fewer participants; one person was killed in clashes with the security forces.

Prof. Meir Litvak, head of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, likens the Iranian opposition to "smouldering embers." However, the regime and its security forces are better deployed than Mubarak and his police were. According to Litvak, the ayatollahs still enjoy quite a stable support base - 20 to 30 percent of the population.

"These are people who truly believe in the rightness of the path of the Islamic revolution," he says. "There are also various groups that are driven by vested interests, such as the Basij [a paramilitary voluntary militia] and the Pasdaran [the Revolutionary Guards], for whom the end of the revolution means their job is done." Key groups, such as the workers and the bazaar merchants, have not yet joined the current round of protests.

If the regime is more worried now than it was in 2009, it has to do with the economic situation. Domestic problems, compounded by the international sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, mean large segments of the population are in financial straits. The elimination of $100 billion in subsidies drove up gasoline prices significantly. Dramatic inflation is likely, which might generate broader unrest.

Litvak also notes there are internal disputes within the regime and the opposition. In the conservative camp, a confrontation is developing between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and parliament chairman Ali Larijani, and between the president and the religious sages (the Ulama ).

Meanwhile, two factions have emerged in the opposition. One of them - whose members include two of the leaders of the 2009 protest, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi - seeks to reform the existing system. The other group, which stood out in the latest demonstrations, is demanding a new regime, one that's democratic and progressive.

"The trouble is that the Greens' demonstrations have encouraged the conservative camp to reunite," Litvak notes.

Dr. Eldad Pardo, an Iran expert from the department of Middle East studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Ahmadinejad has become a burden for supreme spiritual leader Ali Khamenei.

"Even the Revolutionary Guards do not view the president as a respectable personage," Pardo says. "He is perceived as an odd bird who is trying to lead the great mahdi revolution." For Shi'ites, the mahdi, an Islamic equivalent of the messiah, refers to the Twelfth Imam, who disappeared and whose return is awaited.

"Ahmadinejad is also linking the return of the mahdi to the nuclear project. Last month, he said that the day is not far when 7 billion people will speak Farsi - that is, the global population," says Pardo.

Pardo's primary conclusion from a multiyear study of Iranian culture and websites is that the Iranian nation fears another revolution. "The nation wants change. They have already gone through one revolution, an Islamic one, and they believe another one is liable to bring another dictatorship. The Iranians do not want a Western-style regime, but something loftier."

Since Wednesday, Iran's regime apparently has tried to move from a defensive position to an offensive one.

With timing that may not be coincidental, Hassan Nasrallah mocked the Israeli army's chief of staff changeover this week and threatened that his organization, Hezbollah, would conquer the Galilee if Israel launches a new war. There were also reports that Iranian ships were steaming toward Lebanon - something that would not have been possible in the Mubarak era. The Iranians were thereby signaling their belief that the times have changed. Until now, it was the other way around: Israeli ships were going through the canal and threatening Iran.

The two developments apparently show that Tehran, despite the demonstrations against the police at home, wants to shift the front onto its adversaries' territory, even if this means using the hackneyed tactic of diverting fire toward Israel. The fact that Washington, despite its recent declarations, is not taking the same decisive line toward Tehran that it took toward Cairo shows that it too is apprehensive. The Iranians already have shown that they can wage a ramified terrorist offensive against targets around the world.

Undercurrents of anxiety

The temporary military regime in Egypt has announced its commitment to international agreements, including the peace treaty with Israel. Jerusalem's main fear is that things may change for the worse in the more distant future, although the anxiety over the Muslim Brotherhood potentially taking power has abated somewhat. The more urgent problem now is Sinai, where Israel allowed the Egyptian army to send in more forces this week, contrary to the terms of the peace treaty. The porous border between Sinai and Israel is open to smuggling, infiltration and possibly terrorism, and this necessitates a fence along its entire length - a project relegated to a low place on the list of budget priorities.

Officially, Israel is gloating over its long-standing acquaintance with Cairo's strongman of the moment, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who fought opposite Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the bloody battle of the Chinese Farm in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In practice, Tantawi was always the most distant of the Egyptian leadership in regard to Israel.

Some of the signs from Jordan are also cause for concern. The country's justice minister called for the release of his former client, the soldier who murdered seven Israeli girls at Naharayim in 1997. A Jordanian general visiting Gaza was photographed receiving a citation from the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. Bedouin chiefs signed a public petition accusing Queen Rania of corruption. Amman is extremely sensitive to changes in the region and is especially worried about the planned American withdrawal from Iraq later this year.

In the territories, the Palestinian Authority has decided to hold municipal elections. During the campaign, the PA will not be able to allow itself to appear conciliatory toward Israel. Accordingly, we are unlikely to see official meetings with Israeli negotiators or senior army officers visiting Ramallah before the elections.

Fear, deadlock and cultivating anxieties - there is no formula that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes better. In his speeches this week at the ceremonies for the outgoing and incoming chiefs of staff, Netanyahu referred frequently to the regional unrest, which, he said, calls for determination and caution. Ehud Barak took a similar line. But the visit by Barak and the new chief of staff, Benny Gantz, to the northern border on Tuesday was primarily for the domestic audience. Barak, who at long last can allow himself to be seen with the chief of staff, wants to project an image of harmony and stability at the top.

The next day, Nasrallah, who is not one to pass up an opportunity to taunt Israel publicly, intimated that the Israeli generals, and particularly Gantz, should fear the organization's planned revenge over the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh three years ago. Within a few hours, Netanyahu responded with a threat of his own and told Nasrallah to stay in his bunker. Israelis and Lebanese engaged in vigorous verbal fireworks: Despite everything, some things in the Middle East just don't change.