Iran and the Arab Spring: A Tale of Two Narratives


PDF downlaodAli M. Ansari*
POMEAS BRIEF, No. 5, December 2014

The Iranians were swift to take credit for the Arab Spring. As becomes a power that considers itself in the avant-garde of regional political developments, if not in the world, the Arab Spring was soon interpreted and presented as a somewhat belated outcome of an Islamic awakening that had originated in the Revolution in Iran back in 1979.

To be sure this narrative had some initial competition from Iranian opposition groups, who identified the Arab Spring with their own political movements for civil and democratic rights – most notably witnessed in the 'Persian Summer' of the Green Movement in 2009. But this reading was swiftly drowned out by the official narrative, in part because of its dominance of the airwaves but also as a consequence of the political turmoil that soon engulfed the Arab world. Indeed this turmoil soon affected the official narrative of Islamic emancipation, leading to an alternative reading that settled back into a comfort zone of Western conspiracy and hegemonic manipulation.

Looking back to 2011, it is often difficult to imagine just how positively the Islamic Republic of Iran interpreted the political upheaval that was then beginning to shake the Arab world. There was to be sure an initial wariness that assessed the uprisings to be part of wider Western destabilization plan, catalyzed by what was widely considered in Iranian political circles, to have been the 'deliberate' release of embarrassing documents through the medium of Wikileaks. But this was soon supplanted by an opportunistic attempt to seize the leadership of the movement in what can only be described as an extraordinary expression of political and cultural self-confidence. The 'Arab Spring', initiated in Tunisia and rapidly spreading through North Africa and the wider Arab world was swiftly re-situated within a broader 'Islamic Awakening' that had begun with the revolution in Iran in 1979, and had been prompted not only by the revolutionary utterances of Ayatollah Khomeini but perhaps more importantly by the decisive leadership of his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei. Indeed the entire movement was reimagined as a vehicle for the reinforcement of the cult of Khamenei, who was praised not only for his leadership of the Arab Spring, but of a much wider global movement encompassing 'Occupy Wall Street'. Indeed for Iranians gripped by the millenarian ideas that had come to fruition under Ahmadinejad, the popular upheaval was nothing less than the turmoil that would anticipate the return of the Hidden Imam.

This millenarian euphoria came to a crashing halt with the unfolding debacle in Syria, where the realities of geopolitics conflicted with this ideology of Islamic emancipation. Having supported the removal of the region's Western aligned autocrats, Iran proved much more reluctant to see the removal of its ally in Syria, Bashar al Assad. Interestingly, there were many in Iran that were not troubled by the possibility and could clearly see the contradictions in Iran's policy, not least the former President and sometime eminence grise of the Islamic Republic, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In a speech in northern Iran, recorded for posterity by an individual using the very mobile technology that was now empowering citizens worldwide.

Rafsanjani, himself empowered by the recent election of his sometime protégé, Hasan Rouhani to the presidency in the summer of 2013, vented his frustration at the parlous state of the Iranian economy, but more controversially, on Iran's continued support for Assad, whose repressive behavior, he argued, did not sit well with the ideals (as he understood them) of the Islamic Revolution.1 Needless to say, Rafsanjani and his political bedfellows were swiftly sidelined in the ensuing debate. The assault on Assad was not an extension of an Islamic Awakening, but – to return to an earlier narrative – a calculated attempt by the West to extend its hegemony by de-stabilizing the 'axis of resistance'. In effect, developments in Syria ensured that Iran returned to its ideological comfort zone, in which Iran and its allies (Syria, Hezbollah, Russia) confronted the over-weaning power of global arrogance (i.e. the United States and its allies).

That this narrative returned to prominence reflected the domestic political realities of contemporary Iran, and effectively served notice that Rouhani's election, far from inaugurating a new dawn of moderation, was a presidency whose 'liberal moment' would be severely restricted by the political realities of the day. This reality was not only a presidency much weakened by the political and economic depredations of the Ahmadinejad era, but one in which the institutions of the 'revolution' had a much more direct hand in the development of policy than the regular government. As far as Syria was concerned, this meant that foreign policy was being directed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who regarded Syria as the frontline of a broader struggle against the United States: in essence, as a military rather than political (or diplomatic) problem.

Indeed as the Syrian uprising descended into civil war, so too did the narrative develop to reinforce the view that the opposition were little more that hard line Sunni terrorists bent on death and destruction. It mattered little that the chronology of events suggested that the ruthless suppression of the uprising had encouraged radicalization among the opposition, or that the Assad regime was being selective in its attacks on the opposition to support it own narrative of events. The fact that a radical Islamist opposition had emerged, was sufficient to cast doubt on the wisdom of Western policy, which was itself wracked with contradiction yet devoid of the ideological self-confidence enjoyed by its opponents that helped disguise these very contradictions. Growing Western incoherence only served to reinforce the validity of the narrative of resistance now being promoted. And the contrast became even starker when the even more radicalized, so-called 'Islamic State' (IS) emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Iraq.

Here we must pause to reflect on the ideological hubris that allowed Iran to portray what by any measure was a failure of its own regional strategy, as principally a failure of Western strategy. The rationale for Iran's involvement in Syria reflected Iran's justification of involvement and support for Hezbollah and militant groups in the Occupied Territories. Quite apart from the ideological fraternity being expressed, the policy reflected a geopolitical imperative of not only providing a form of deterrence against its erstwhile enemies (in this case Israel), but of keeping any potential conflict away from Iran's borders. This had been one of the justifications for Iran's interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq; by keeping the United States preoccupied in those areas, it would have little stomach or interest in extending its Global War on Terror against Iran. To the extent that Iran had achieved this, the strategy had proved a success and now Syria, one step removed, was to be the new frontline. Yet the emergence of IS in Iraq, in what was generally assumed to be Iran's 'near abroad' was not only a failure of strategy but of foresight. If Iran had become dominant in Iraq and now controlled it through its nominee, Prime Minister Maleki, how on earth had Iran and more pertinently, the IRGC, fail to see the rise of this new, more vicious threat? Whatever private doubts existed, publicly at least, the emergence of IS was laid squarely at the door of the United States and its incoherent strategy, while practically, Iran took swift measures to replace Maleki and send military support to its allies. The ubiquitous appearance of the hitherto shadowy IRGC commander Soleimani seemed to serve the purpose of reassurance more than anything else: in sum, don't worry, we are in control.

Yet just how far the rise of IS had undermined this narrative became tantalizingly apparent when the pragmatic government of Hasan Rouhani began hinting at the possibility of cooperation with the United States against IS. Here, yet again, was a curious convergence of interests, which needed to be acted upon and extended. Here was an opportunity created by a crisis for the hitherto suspicious IRGC to collaborate with its arch foe in a collective effort to destroy a common enemy, and by extension diminish the 'wall of mistrust' that had been built between the United States and Iran. The revelation that Iranian air force F4 Phantom jets had participated in bombing raids against IS targets indicated that for all practical purposes, some cooperation had been taking place. It would after all have been impossible for Iranian air force planes to fly over Iraqi airspace without American knowledge and tacit agreement. Yet publicly at least, the ideology of distrust has been reiterated and reinforced relentlessly, to the point that it has even been alleged that the US air-force, far from bombing IS, has been supporting it by supplying it with munitions.2

Some have argued that this rhetoric serves to disguise an emerging reality of cooperation for a wary Iranian public. But the Iranian public has long been in favour of some sort of détente with the West, so this explanation makes little sense. Moreover this is not the first time such a convergence of interests has emerged and many Iranian policy makers have long held the view that a more flexible approach to the United States is required to further Iranian national interests. The last time such an opportunity presented itself of course, in the aftermath of 9/11, the Reformist government of Mohammad Khatami was rebuffed in its attempts to engage constructively with the United States by the remarkable hubris of the Bush White House. In that case Iran's hardliners were well served by their counterparts in the United States. But it did not escape anyone's notice that there existed a frustrating recurrence of interests, that there had been historical precedence for a more constructive relationship (albeit before the revolution, but then Iranian policy makers have never been shy about scouring the historical landscape for lessons and examples), and that there were many Iranians even within the political establishment, that retained the hope that antagonism would one day be replaced by rapprochement. Indeed for many observers, it was not a matter of 'if' but 'when' this warming would take place, an inevitability seemingly made all the more certain by the realities of the Arab Spring, but which has generated fear and hope (depending on one's ideological and geopolitical perspective) in almost equal measure.

Indeed, it is perhaps one of the great tragedies of contemporary international relations that the more events conspire to converge US interests with those of Iran, the more the ideologies retrench to prevent it from happening. To better appreciate this dynamic we need to recognize two important processes. The first is Iran's growing and intimate relationship with Putin's Russia. Historically this is a remarkable development given the real tensions that have existed between Iran and Russia over the last two centuries. But both states and their leaders share a deep distrust of Western motives and affectation for conspiracy theories. Iran's renewed relationship with Russia began inauspiciously enough with the flight of Iraq's air force to Iran in the run up to the first Gulf War in 1991. Impressed with the aviation technology Iran's fledgling military-industrial complex began to forge a 'deep-state' relationship with its Russian counterpart. The exercise of Russia's soft power in this regard gained momentum and grew more explicit during the Presidency of Ahmadinejad. But the intensity of Iran's close ties with Russia were laid bare during the recent Ukraine crisis, when Iranian ministers injudiciously commented that Iran would be quite prepared to supply Europe with gas that Russia was threatening to withhold.3 The ministers in question were swiftly rebuked and President Rouhani took care to assure his Russian allies that such an offer was not on the table.4

Russia in the meantime sought to consolidate and extend its strategic partnership with Iran through an extension of much vaunted nuclear collaboration. Indeed the announcement in November 2014 that Russia had signed an agreement to supply Iran with at least two new civil reactors was as much political as it was economic. Keen observers of Russo-Iranian relations will wonder who the real beneficiary of such an agreement is, given the protracted nature of the construction of the power plant at Bushehr. Be that as it may if the agreement is implemented it will further cement the ties between the respective military and commercial elites.

And here we must turn to perhaps the paradox of the recent nuclear negotiations and the second major factor at work in hindering the emergence of a détente. This may appear counter-intuitive at first given the tremendous enthusiasm for the talks launched in late 2013 as their presentation as the key to détente and the normalization of relations between Iran and the West. Solve the nuclear crisis we are repeatedly told and everything else will fall into place; Iran will come in from the cold and in turn a new progressive politics will take hold in Iran. But what if the current political elite in Iran, want neither of these things? It is true that Rouhani's government is sympathetic to détente, but it is remarkable how his room for manoeuvre has been severely restricted and any attempt or suggestion that discussions might broaden to questions of bilateral interest beyond the nuclear issue is swiftly rejected.5 Indeed both sides have agreed to limit discussions to the nuclear issue, partly for the sake of simplicity and focus, though one also suspects, in large part so that the negotiating teams can be kept on a tight leash. In this respect, the Iranian team is probably on a tighter leash than their American counterparts, reflecting perhaps the differing nature of their political structures and relationships. Put simply, Secretary of State Kerry enjoys more flexibility of initiative than Javad Zarif, who as Iranian foreign minister, really exists to execute policies made elsewhere.

That place would be the office of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Khamenei has been adamant that the negotiations with the United States cannot extend beyond the nuclear question not only in terms of the matters to be discussed but also crucially with respect to their consequences. There has never been a suggestion that normalization of relations with the United States was on the cards or that a successful conclusion to the negotiations would lead to anything other than the lifting of sanctions and the recognition of Iran's rights. That the negotiations have focused on technical issues have ensured they are easier to monitor and control. Khamenei has always been anxious that in dealing with the Americans, Iranians have proved too malleable and so he has been keen to inject some 'red lines' whenever he felt that the direction of travel was veering too far along the line of concession and compromise.

His most explicit intervention in this regard came last summer when he abruptly announced that Iran would expect to have an industrial scale enrichment program in due course. His reference to 190,000 'separative work units', was not only intended to indicate his knowledge of the field, but that he was well briefed and ultimately in control. By stating something in public that may or may not have been stated in private he of course also tied the hands of his negotiating team. In sum, the way in which the nuclear negotiations have been framed, the limits on the negotiating teams to discuss anything of mutual interest beyond the strict parameters laid out, has ensured both a high degree of control from the centre (in this case Khamenei), limited the possibility for creative diplomacy and ensures that Khamenei controls the narrative. In this sense the very simplicity and focus of the negotiations does not enhance the prospects for success but, as Khamenei's periodic interventions indicate, can be an obstacle.

So what can be done?

• The West must develop an ideological and narrative coherence with respect to its policy in the Middle East. At best the apparent contradictions in policy look muddled and at worst are read as weakness in Tehran. Contrast this with the remarkable consistency of the Iranian position whatever the contradictions of the realities on the ground.
• This has allowed Iran to dominate the narrative, to portray itself as an emerging regional power that the West needs. As such Iran believes it can play the long game and effectively bore the West into a compromise of its own design.
• The fact that this relative balance of power is flatly contradicted by the relative economic strength of each side, the deleterious effect of sanctions, and perhaps most dramatically, the current collapse in the oil price, does not appear to have affected a popular impression of an Iranian state in control. As the presentation of a negotiating position this is excellent but as many Iranians are only too aware it does not reflect the reality of the situation in Iran.
• The West must broaden the debate and articulate a coherent Grand Strategy: quite apart from challenging the Iranian narrative, there needs to be an articulation of a broader grand strategy from the West, which moves beyond the nuclear issue. At present there is a belief in some quarters that you unlock the nuclear impasse and everything else will fall into place. But there no clear idea how this might work or unfold. A broader strategy dealing with a range of mutual concerns – a grand bargain if you will – will not only provide more room for confidence building measures and allow a range of concerns to be addressed.

There are many in Iran, including among the wider political elite, who would welcome such a broadening of the debate beyond the narrow confines of a nuclear impasse that many accept results as much from political miscalculations of their own side (most pointedly that of the Ahmadinejad presidency) as of Western intransigence. Still more beyond that political elite who would like to see genuine progress towards normalization. But to achieve that, you need to move towards areas of interest not dominated by hawks and hardliners where genuine opportunities for engagement and confidence building can be explored. The hardline establishment in Iran may be unnerved by the potential consequences but at the very least the West, by adjusting the narrative terms of reference, could wrest the initiative back from them. It does require bold thinking but then, as we know, fortune does favour the brave.

1 "Iran: Rafsanjani signals wavering in long-standing support for Syria", The Guardian, accessed December 28, 2014, For a recording of the speech see, "Hashemi Rafsanjani: Syrians Were Bombed with Chemicals by Their Own Government", Memritvvideo, September 3, 2013, accessed December 28, 2014,

2 Scott Lucas, "Iran Feature: Supreme Leader Goes on Offensive Against 'Arrogant' US", EA Worldview, November 25, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014,

3 Charles Recknagel, "Iran Says Ready To Supply Natural Gas To Europe", Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, May 15, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014

4 "Iran 'not ready' to replace Russian gas supplies to EU – Rouhani", Russia Today, October 4, 2014, accessed December 28, 2014,

5 Najmeh Bozorgmehr, "Ali Shamkhani: Iran will to seek to resume diplomatic ties with US", The Financial Times, December 22, 2014, accessed December 22, 2014,

*Ali Massoud Ansari is Professor of Iranian History and Founding Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews, Senior Associate Fellow at Royal United Services Institute and President of the British Institute for Persian Studies.