Iran Tries To Rebrand Arab Spring With Activists

Audie Cornish talks with Robert Worth of The New York Times about Iran's attempt to rebrand the Arab Spring. The Iranian government recently flew in hundreds of young activists from around the region for a conference on the "Islamic Awakening." But some delegates there questioned Tehran's staunch support of the Syrian regime, which has continued to crack down on anti-government protesters.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Young activists from around the Arab world were invited to Iran recently for a conference on the political uprisings of the Arab Spring or, as it's known in Iran, the Islamic Awakening. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tried to use the conference to win favor with these activists and to suggest a link between his nation's 1979 revolution and these more recent uprisings.

But many in the audience cried foul when they realized that no activists from Syria had been invited, and they hadn't been invited because Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad have long been allies.

Robert Worth is a writer for the New York Times magazine. He was at the conference, but is back home now and joins us in the studio. Welcome, Robert.

ROBERT WORTH: Nice to be here.

CORNISH: Describe the purpose of the event, at least as it was billed by Iran.

WORTH: Well, I should say that Iran, from the beginning of the protests a year ago in the Arab world, has presented this as, you know, indications that everybody's coming their way, that there's going to be an Islamic revolution just like Iran had in 1979. And I think they have begun organizing these conferences, both with a view to putting that view out and also to try to get more and more people on their side. I mean, they brought these activists in, trying to indoctrinate them or whatever - however you want to put it.

CORNISH: And they pay their way, right? I mean, it's...

WORTH: Yes. They pay their way. Exactly.

CORNISH: ...an all-expenses-paid trip and invitation.

WORTH: Exactly. Exactly, which is quite an expensive proposition because there were more than 1,000, I think. They claimed the total is about 1,200 from 73 different countries, they said, all over the world.

CORNISH: When did people realize that there was no Syrian contingent and how did they react to it?

WORTH: I think probably a lot of them could have guessed there wouldn't be. I mean, everybody knows Iran's position towards Syria. But when the Iranians who gave the opening speeches made so clear their perspective that, you know, this was - I mean, it almost became comic, you know. They just kept saying again and again, Syria is just a foreign conspiracy. I think...

CORNISH: Meaning the opposition in Syria is propelled by a foreign intervention somehow.

WORTH: Exactly. Because Bashar al-Assad is the ally of the Iranian government, they are unwilling to believe - they just really want to keep him in power. So that these protestors who are trying to bring him down, to them, are, you know, they're the enemy. And because they equate the enemy with U.S. and with Israel, they essentially make that equation, you know, sort of, anyone who's against us must be backed by or funded by the U.S. and Israel.

I think, among others in the audience, there were Egyptians and Tunisians who told me that they felt some sympathy with what's going on in Syria. And not just them. I'm still not sure who it was. There was one guy in the audience who stood up with this great big sign that said: Syria, question mark. And that got people going. That was right at the very beginning.

CORNISH: So, how did the Iranian organizers react to this?

WORTH: Well, it's hard to say. What I know is that in the audience there were people who immediately began to react, whether by shouting them down or chanting. There were people who began chanting pro-Assad slogans. Whether those people were just doing it genuinely or whether the government had sort of put them in place to stop that, who can say?

CORNISH: Can you put this in context for us a little bit in terms of what Iran is really trying to achieve?

WORTH: I think Iran feels uneasy right now. I mean, they're surrounded by an Arab world that's in tremendous turmoil and transition. They initially made a very confident claim that, you know, this was a revolution that was going their way. They've obviously seen Hosni Mubarak as an enemy for a long time, and they were pleased to see him overthrown. They see the autocrats of the Arab world as, you know, generally speaking, enemies. And so, they felt this was something good.

But they also recognize that it was not, in fact, you know, Muslim or Islamic activists who began this revolution and it's not necessarily going to be people who are sympathetic to Iran who are going to end up running these countries. Even in countries like Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be taking power, they may well not be friendly to Iran. So, I think Iran is trying very hard to present a version of events that suggests that we're all on the same boat, that, you know, what really matters is that we're all Muslims, to overlook all the sectarian differences and the political differences.

CORNISH: And at the same time, how long can they sort of hold out when it comes to Syria? You get the sense that they're holding on in terms of backing Syria.

WORTH: Oh, yeah. They seem to be vehemently backing Syria. I mean, you know, Ahmadinejad gave a speech to this conference where he made it very clear that was his view. So, they're not backing away at all, although they obviously must be worried because they're seeing what's happening in Syria. And for Syria to fall would be a real blow for Iran.

CORNISH: Robert Worth, he's a writer for the New York Times magazine. Thank you so much.

WORTH: Pleasure.

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