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How Are The Protests In Egypt, Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution Being Viewed In Iran?

Antigovernment protesters clash with riot police at the Egyptian port city of Suez on January 27.
Antigovernment protesters clash with riot police at the Egyptian port city of Suez on January 27.
"The Islamic world is ripe with major new developments and Khomeini's Islam is the engine of these events," Iran's hard-line daily "Kayhan" wrote in a January 27 commentary devoted to the recent wave of protests in the Arab world.

The daily, which often reflects the views of the Iranian establishment -- or more specifically, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- added that the third millennium is witnessing "the powerful [presence] of Islam under Iran's leadership."

Iranian state media has been portraying the recent upheaval in Arab countries as a struggle against Western puppets in the region, while claiming that citizens who have taken to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere are taking inspiration from Iran's Islamic Revolution.

"Kayhan" suggested that participants in Tunisia's uprising, as well in as protests in Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, and Egypt are taking inspiration from Iran's 1979 revolution, which led to the fall of the shah's U.S.-backed regime and the creation of an Islamic republic.

" 'Death to the U.S. Death to Israel. Islam is my religion. We don't want American rulers. We're not afraid of martyrdom.' Are these slogans familiar to the ears and eyes of the world? Aren't these slogans the same that Iranian people [chanted] in the run-up to the Islamic Revolution?" wrote "Kayhan."

The commentary made no mention of the calls for economic reforms and political freedom being voiced in the protests. There was also no mention of comparisons that have been made between Tunisia's uprising and the mass antigovernment demonstrations that shook the Iranian establishment in 2009.

'In The Name Of Islam'

Iran's state broadcasts have followed the same line as that seen in the print media, according to journalist Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, who monitors Iranian state television.

"After Tunisian President [Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali] fled the country, they started reporting that the protests were taking place in the name of Islam and that they were targeting the anti-Islamic government of Tunisia," Mirebrahimi says. "The same applies now to protests [elsewhere], including in Egypt."

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad: "Western meddling."
In the immediate aftermath of Tunisia's uprising, Iranian state media kept silent about the protests that led to the collapse of Ben Ali's 23-year rule.

"State television has no coverage of the unrest in Tunisia," said one man in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity in the days leading up to Ben Ali's fall. "If Tunisians had protested against the U.S., it would have become a top story," he added.

He said he relied on Persian-language media based outside of Iran, including RFE/RL's Radio Farda, to follow the developments in Tunisia and other Islamic countries.

In a January 19 speech, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad warned against "Western meddling" in Tunisia and said Tunisian politicians should respect the needs and choices of the people. Ahmadinejad added that Tunisians want an Islamic government.

Spin Control

Washington-based analyst Rasool Nafisi says that Tehran has been trying to spin the unrest in the region as a religious struggle in order to promote the idea that its own ideology is spreading.

"At first, they were taken by surprise because [events in Tunisia] had certain similarities with the 2009 uprising in Iran," Nafisi says. "When Ben Ali left, they could spin it and make it look like the 1979 revolution in Iran and interpret it the way they wanted -- meaning an uprising of Muslim people against a secular tyrant backed and supported by Western powers."

Nafisi says state media broadcasts also reflect Iranian leaders' concerns over the unprecedented unrest in Arab states that fall short on economic opportunity and political freedom.

"They are [ignoring ] the facts on the ground, such as the slogans in Tunisia or in Egypt or elsewhere that people are basically fighting tyranny exactly like the one we have in Iran, and that they're calling for democracy," Nafisi says.

For many Iranians, the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt have rekindled memories of the summer of 2009, when tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest what they saw as a stolen presidential election. Many have been watching Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" and protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with envy, as evidenced by the protest photos and videos that Iranians are sharing on blogs and social-networking sites.

'Why Have We Failed?'

The demonstrations have also prompted debate and discussion among Iranians over why the country's Green Movement failed to bring change, and how it has been silenced since 2009.

Prominent women's rights activist Parvin Ardalan said in a January 26 interview with the "Irish Times" that Tunisia's revolution has brought a sense of hope that is very important for Iranian activists, who have come under state pressure since the disputed presidential vote in June 2009.

"Some are looking to Tunisia and saying to themselves, 'We could do this in Iran, but why have we not achieved that yet?'" Ardalan was quoted as saying.

"Ben Ali is gone. When will Seyed Ali?" wrote one blogger in an apparent reference to Khamenei. Others, similarly playing with words, said: "Tunis tunest, Iran Na-tunest" ("Tunisia did it, Iran couldn't do it.")

One Green Movement supporter updated his Facebook status on January 27 with a message of support for Egyptians who were planning to join demonstrations on January 28.

"Let's pray for the Egyptians who will take to the streets in a few hours, that they remain safe from beatings, arrests, and death. Let's hope Hosni Mubarak ends like Ben Ali and that the turn of other dictators in the region, including in our country, Iran, comes too. Long live freedom."

Another activist shared on Facebook a picture of Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Khamenei that said: "Dictators must go."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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