Iran Glories In Egypt's Unrest, Perhaps Too Soon

The leaders of Iran have been watching events unfold in Egypt with unconcealed delight. They have embraced the protesters, proclaiming an Islamic awakening is under way. But it's unclear whether Iran really stands to benefit from the uprising in Egypt.

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The leaders of Iran have been watching the offense unfold in Egypt with unconcealed delight. They have embraced the protestors proclaiming that an Islamic awakening is underway there. And they characterize the turmoil as defeat for the United States and Israel and a victory for Iran. But Iran's opposition is also taking heart in the Egyptian uprising. NPR's Mike Shuster has the story.

MIKE SHUSTER: At first blush, it seems Iran will inevitably benefit from the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's rule in Egypt.

Mr. ALI REZA ESHRAGHI (Iran Editor, Institute for War and Peace Reporting): For Iran, anything is better than the status quo.

SHUSTER: Ali Reza Eshraghi is the Iran editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. He notes that Iran's Islamic leaders have been at odds with Mubarak for more than 30 years, and so when street protests broke out in Egypt, Iran was quick to spin them their way.

Iran's supreme leader has declared the protests an Islamic awakening, and in a recent public prayer session, hard-line cleric Ahmed Khatami proclaimed that those that fight against religion will be overthrown.

Mr. AHMED KHATAMI (Cleric): (foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: A new Middle East is being shaped around Islam, Khatami told worshippers. To those taking part in demonstrations, our message is be careful not to let the pure gem of Islam to be stolen from you. Be careful to adhere to Islamic values.

Few protestors in the streets of Cairo have proclaimed Islam as their motivating ideology, but that doesn't seem to matter to Iran's leaders, who have spun it their way nevertheless, says Ali Reza Eshraghi.

Mr. ESHRAGHI: Being Islamic or not is just a matter of propaganda for the Iranian regime. And anything going to happen is better than the status quo in the Middle East and they're obviously very happy.

SHUSTER: There was trouble between Cairo and Tehran from the earliest days of Iran's Islamic revolution, when the shah of Iran abdicated and left the country, it was Egypt, under the leadership of Anwar Sadat, who gave him sanctuary. The shah died in Egypt in 1980 and Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

Iran embraced Sadat's killers in a way that has poisoned relations with Egypt ever since, says Abbas Milani, director of Iran Studies at Stanford University and author of a new biography of the Iranian monarch called "The Shah."

Professor ABBAS MILANI (Director, Iran Studies, Stanford University, Author, "The Shah"): Iran named the street where the Egyptian embassy was after the terrorist who killed Sadat as a gesture of retaliation, as a childish suggestion of retaliation. And they kept that name for many, many years to the consternation and rejection of Egypt.

SHUSTER: Milani believes that once Mubarak leaves the scene, Iran will try to fill the political vacuum.

Mr. MILANI: They will certainly try to influence it. They will certainly to radicalize it. They will certainly try to pull it their way, as they already are.

SHUSTER: But it is not foregone conclusion that Iran will replace the United States as the nation of influence in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Nader Hashemi, a Middle East specialist at the University of Denver, believes that Iran is trying to look confident but it's something of a guise, he says.

Professor NADER HASHEMI (International Studies, University of Denver): I think they're nervous and they're trying to sort of ideologically spin events in Egypt and before then in Tunisia in order to fit the ideological narrative that they have been promoting to justify their own rule inside Iran.

SHUSTER: The hardliners are not the only Iranians seeking to align themselves with Egypt's protest movement. Iran's opposition, the Green Movement, has also been quick to embrace the street protests in Egypt, linking them to the protests that erupted after the disputed presidential election in Iran in 2009. Nader Hashemi says there are many similarities.

Mr. HASHEMI: There's almost a replay. In fact, it's a sense of deja vu for me watching what's taking place of what happened in Iran about a year and a half ago - the same type of thugs cracking down censorship, kicking out the media, fearful of public debate, kicking out, you know, in the case of Egypt, al Jazeera; in the case of Iran, the entire foreign press after the election.

SHUSTER: At the very least, it's probably fair to say that Iran may have some room to maneuver politically no matter what government emerges after Mubarak but there's no certainty at this point Tehran will have anything more than minor influence on events in Egypt.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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