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Tehran: The Imamate and its illusions - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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These days, the hottest topic in chancelleries is “the Arab Spring”, a cake from which everyone hopes to snatch a slice.

For the first time in a long while, Arabs, or at least some of them, appear to have started a winning bandwagon.

So, why not try and jump on it?

Initially, the Khomeinists in Tehran tried to ignore the whole thing. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt resembled what had happened in Iran in 2009 when IT-savvy youths led a movement against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

When it became clear that the Arab uprisings were not fading, Khomeinist propaganda shifted gear. The uprisings were described as fruits of “Zionist and American plots” to replace “old lackeys”.

By June, Tehran’s position had shifted again.

Now, the official line was support for revolts everywhere except Syria.

However, the question remained: what did Arabs want?

Official media could not tell their audiences that Arabs wanted human rights and democracy. That sounds like what Iranians revolted for in 2009.

Did Arabs want unity?

Again, Tehran would not like the idea. In its modern form, launched by Jamal Abdul-Nasser, Arab nationalism has always had an anti-Iranian edge.

What if Arabs wanted an “Islamic” system, whatever that means?

Tehran would not be comfortable with that analysis either. Most Arab “Islamists” are of Salafist brand and, thus, enemies of Iran’s version of Islam.

The issue was debated within the “star chamber” that runs the Islamic Republic under “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei.

The outcome of the debate was simple: the Islamic Republic should claim that Arabs revolts are inspired by Iran’s experience in 1979 when mullahs, in alliance with Communists, seized power.

Once that strategy was fixed several steps were taken.

First, the media were allowed to show the Arab revolts, except in Syria, in a positive light.

Next, they started promoting Khamenei as “Imam” rather than mere ayatollah. This meant that Iran was no longer a “republic” as its title asserts but an “imamate”. The change would enable Khamenei to claim to be leader of Muslims throughout the world, whether they liked it or not.

The next step was to build an organization to promote that claim. Thus was born the “Islamic Awakening Conference” in Tehran this week.

According to organizers, it attracted some 600 “scholars and political leaders” from 53 countries. It was inaugurated by Khamenei with a sermon in which he presented the late Ruhallah Khomeini as the father of the “awakening”. The implication was that, as Khomeini’s successor, he should now be regarded as “Imam of the Ummah”.

However, claiming that Arabs had risen to demand that Khamenei be their “Imam” still needed an ideological context.

But what could that be?

Obviously, the participants could not agree on theological issues. Some guests were not even ready to pray alongside their Iranian hosts. It was impossible to claim that all Muslims wanted to live under “Walayat al-Faqih”, or rule by the mullahs, as practiced in Iran.

So, what to do? The solution was found in the last refuge of the scoundrel: anti-Americanism. Thus the “Conference of Islamic Awakening” was transformed into an anti-American fest celebrating Khomeini’s supposed “humbling of America.” (Some “Zionist” bashing added for good measure.)

Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister and now foreign policy advisor to the “Supreme Guide” had the temerity to claim that the Arab Spring was all about hatred for the “Great Satan”.

With anti-Americanism established as the movement’s ideology, the conference sat back to hear diatribes from a cast of characters. These included ageing Communists, often picked up in intellectual cafes in Paris, and glitterati who have built their boutique around “the sufferings of Palestine”.

The real participants in the Arab Spring were nowhere to be seen. A couple of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiles came from London. A single Tunisian Communist who has lived in France since 1960 also turned up. A couple of Houthi activists came from Yemen. Syrian rebels were absent because Khamenei denies the revolt in Syria.

By conference’s end it was clear that what united the participants was neither Islam nor any love for the self-styled “Imam” but anti-Americanism.

Dismissing the Organization of the Islamic Conference as “an ineffective gadget”, Tehran has announced the creation of a rival body: “The Islamic Awakening Movement”. The new body will have a secretariat with Velayati as Secretary-General.

The secretariat will have 12 members. Among possible members are former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Mostafa Osman Ismail, an advisor to the Sudanese President, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese section of Hezbollah, and Ramadan Abdullah, leader of the Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine.

Other possible members are Ali Nasser Muhammad, the Communist former President of the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen, Yemeni militant Adnan Junaid, Uzbek activist Muhammad Saleh and Kamal Halbawi, an Egyptian businessman in London.

The next step was to sell the new organization across the “Arab World.” Ahmadinejad was charged with the task. However, his hopes were quickly dashed. Libya, Tunisia and Egypt indicated they were not prepared to receive him on his way back from the United Nation’s General Assembly in New York. Syria was keen to have him but he was reluctant to go. In the end, he will visit only two countries: Mauritania and Sudan, the last remaining Arab countries with a military regime.

Over the past weeks, leaders from some 40 countries, among them a French President, a British Prime Minister, a Russian Foreign Minister and a Turkish Premier, have visited Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to show solidarity with the Arab Spring.

It seems that the only people not welcome are the leaders of the “Imamate” in Iran.

Ahmadinejad is wrong to refuse going to Damascus while he can. Soon, he might be unwelcome even there.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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