By Alex Alper
A few weeks ago it looked like the green revolution that opposed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmaninejad’s reelection had revived. Thousands of Iranians gathered illegally in downtown Tehran—shouting “death to the dictator.”
“The wind of protests have reached Iran but the Iranian government has doing I guess a good job of stopping any protests in its tracks,” said Azzedine Layachi, a professor of political science at St. John’s University in New York.
“By stopping the protests,” Layachi means the police have managed to turn well-attended weekly protests into small gatherings, using batons and tear gas.
He says Iranians are not about to overthrow the government. But authorities are nervous: they’ve kept opposition leaders Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi on house arrest for almost a month.
Reformist former president Hashemi Rafsanjani resigned from the powerful Assembly of Experts. Many say he was forced out.
But Layachi says Iran’s image in the region is strong.
“Iran is a great regional power and is likely to play an increasing role if those who are friendly with the United States come to collapse,” said Layachi.
For example former Egptian president Hosni Mubarak, who supported lots of American policies in the Middle East: He opposed Iran’s nuclear program, kept peace with Israel, and refused passage through the Suez Canal to Iranian ships.
But last month, two Iranian warships pass through the Suez for the first time in over three decades.
“That was unthinkable under Mubarak’s regime and it became possible after Mubarak fell,” said Layachi.
Layachi also points to Bahrain as sign of Iran’s growing Influence. Bahrain’s Shiite majority is protesting decades of rule by its Sunni king. If that king is toppled, Shiite Iran would have an ally in Bahrain.
That would make other Middle Eastern powers with sizeable Shiite minorities nervous, says Forham University Professor John Entelis.
“There’s a genuine fear on the part of the Saudis who obviously feel threatened by the Iranians, that the Shiites in the eastern provinces might get activated, mobilized, reacting to the Shiites in Bahrain,” said Enteils.
Shiite protests in Saudi Arabia today point to this. But Entelis, who studies politics in the Middle East, says its important not to overestimate how much foreign policy plays a role in the protests.
“What the Egyptian, Tunisian and other uprisings are showing is that peoples priorities are domestic,” said Enteils.
Egyptians and Tunisians overthrew their leaders because they wanted more jobs, and more freedom, he says. Not because they supported Iranian foreign policy goals, like crushing Israel.
Entelis says it’s too soon to know how the balance of power will shift in the region. In the meantime some Iranian ships may appear in new harbors.