Iranian Election Divides Arabs, Their Leaders

Around the Arab world, reactions to the Iranian election have ranged from street demonstrations to Internet protests. But Arab leaders, many of whom are wary of the regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have either remained silent or embraced his re-election as legitimate.

The gap between the public and their leaders in the tightly controlled, economically powerful Persian Gulf states has rarely been this clear. In the wake of the Iranian vote, as government repression of street demonstrations turned violent, the United Arab Emirates' foreign minister spoke out, as did his counterpart in Bahrain.

Both echoed the regime in Tehran, railing against what they called "foreign interference" in Iranian affairs. The Emirati minister added that no country wants to be exposed to instability.

Ordinary Arabs Show Support For Reformers

At the street level, meanwhile, the reaction was much more supportive of the demonstrators seeking a new election. In Dubai, where property prices are generally the first topic of conversation, demonstrators — many of them Iranian expatriates — took to the streets outside mosques and the Iranian Consulate in a rare display of sustained public protest.

When the demonstrations showed no signs of evaporating after several days, the police were called in to break them up. Even so, on a recent night, hundreds of people showed up for a silent candlelight vigil featuring a memorial to a young Iranian woman whose apparent shooting death in Tehran had been captured on video.

Cautious Reaction Of Arab Leaders Not Surprising

Abbas, an Iranian businessman who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution against family members in Iran, says the attacks on civilians in the streets dismayed him. He has no doubt that the election should be annulled and redone. But he also admits that he is not surprised by the cautious reactions among Arab leaders.

"I think the rulers of the countries around us are wise to keep quiet until they know what happens, because it is either Mr. Ahmadinejad or the reformists who [will] come to power. They are right in being silent until this is known," he says.

In several Arab countries, the state-run or pro-government press has buried stories about the unrest in Iran, preferring to lead with articles about swine flu or the latest wrinkle in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the Internet, activists engaged in lengthy debates over whether the Iranian protesters were the descendants of the 1979 revolution or pretenders in designer jeans.

In Cairo, Mahmoud Salem, who blogs under the name "Sandmonkey," says some officials seem worried that political unrest could spread to Egypt, but he thinks the Egyptian leadership would love to see the Iranian regime fall.

"Our government is loving this. Our government hopes Iran falls down. Because no Iran, no Hezbollah and no Hamas. Hamas has to toe the line. Egypt is back in the driving seat in the region," he says.

He claps his hands together as if to say, "That's it, problem solved."

But of course it's not that simple, he adds, noting that one of the biggest beneficiaries of regime change in Iran would be Israel, and that's an outcome that would satisfy no Arab leader.

Opportunity May Be Slipping Away

In the United Arab Emirates, Iranian expatriates such as Abbas scan the Internet for the latest theories on how Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, might be forced from power. Some are excited by a report on the Al Arabiya channel that former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani might convene the Assembly of Experts, a clerical governing body, for a vote to replace Khamenei with a committee of ayatollahs, some of whom might favor redoing the elections.

But Abbas worries that time is not on the reformers' side.

"I think this is the only possibility, the only chance Iranians have to create some change. If they fail to do it this time, they might really have to shelve it for a long time," he says.

In the meantime, Arab states wait, watch and say as little as possible.

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