Most Iranians want ties with Israel, not with Hizbollah
Well before the recent wave of Arab revolt swept the Middle East, the region had already witnessed a historic, people-power challenge to a despotic order. In 2009, three million Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran to protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fraudulent re-election. His government put down these protests brutally but the scenes of Tehran thronged with millions of protesters seared themselves into the Middle East's consciousness. For an instant, it became tantalisingly clear to the ordinary people of a region paralysed by dictatorship that they could indeed rise up against their autocrats.
It is now Iranians who are watching enviously from the sidelines, inspired by the will of Egyptians and Tunisians to claim their liberty. Twice this past month, tens of thousands of protesters turned out across Iran to chant for an end to the Islamic regime, their hopes for change buoyed by the peaceful uprisings in the neighbourhood. While strict restrictions on journalists inside Iran make it difficult to gauge the scope of the turn-out, the flaring up by Iran's politically disaffected makes it clear that Persian Iran will not be unmoved by the Arab world's tremors.
Iran's hard-line regime crushed last month's protests as swiftly and cruelly as it did those of 2009. When it comes to dealing with a rebellious population, Iran's leaders have more in common with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya than Egypt's Hosni Mubarak: they will not relent without a bloody fight. The oil revenue they have at their fingers buys them shock-troops and the allegiance of a small minority they can use to club dissent.
This is partly why Iranians' struggle for democratic change is likely to be so much more protracted than what has unfolded in Egypt and Tunisia. Iran's protest movement lacks momentum and has yet to produce the kind of sustained confrontation with authorities that has altered politics in places like Egypt and Bahrain.
What does set Iran apart in the region, however, is the coherence of people's vision for the new order to which they aspire.
For an instant it became tantalisingly clear that ordinary people could rise up against their autocrats
While the stagnation and tyranny that has defined the Arab world for decades has finally spurred revolt, the deadening effects of all those years means that, in many cases, those rising up have little communal sense of the political future.
The so-called "Arab street" knows it no longer wants to be ruled by corrupt tyrants but it may be years before the Arab societies now riven by unrest will be able to articulate the type of democracy they seek, the role that should be afforded to Islam, and how their newly minted systems should deal with Israel and the Palestinians. It is not at all clear what role religion may play in Egyptian politics, for example, or what alternative forms of government might emerge in a monarchy like Bahrain or the strong-man system of Gaddafi's Libya.
For years now, the "Arab street" has been a zone tightly controlled by state media and thought police, rather than a place where Arabs could meet freely and untangle these questions. As a result, civil society has been either weak or non-existent, political parties banned or perfunctory, and intellectual debate frozen.
I began my career as a journalist in Egypt more than a decade ago, and was struck by the tepid level of debate and wholesale absence of any real opposition to Mubarak's dictatorship. I eventually moved to Iran where, despite the Islamic regime's steely grip on power, a vibrant pro-democracy movement was flourishing and, along with it, an atmosphere of political openness then novel in the region. That era --- in the late 1990s --- came to be known as the "Tehran spring" and, as intellectuals and activists pressed to transform the Islamic regime into a modern democracy, civil society grew more confident and an independent press flourished.
The Tehran spring was short-lived. Reform from within proved a spectacular failure. Those in government resistant to democracy vetoed the efforts of the moderate president, Mohammad Khatami, and the police-state rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reversed the political momentum and crushed the atmosphere of openness that had made Iran the only politically dynamic corner of a region cowed by tyranny. The effect of those years of living more freely, however, can still be felt today.
Iranians, during that period, had the opportunity to measure publicly the accomplishments of their revolution, and were free to proclaim them a profound disappointment. Liberal clerics and human-rights lawyers concluded that basic freedoms were too difficult to secure in the slippery framework of Islamic law, and spoke out in support of gradual secularisation.
Moderate-minded politicians were able to argue in newspapers that the government's support for militant groups undermined Iran's national interests and its place in the global community. Particularly brave student activists publicly labelled as terrorism the civilian-targeting tactics of Hamas. These years helped Iranians figure out their relationship to their ailing revolution, their views on theocracy, and the kind of place they wished to occupy in the Middle East.
For Iranians, the aspirational future is clear; the problem is simply how to get there. The majority of the population opposes the Islamic government, and seeks a democratic system in which religion and politics are separate. For most Iranians, eager to reap the financial rewards of their country's vast cultural and commercial potential, there is simply no question that the political future must include peace with Israel and a break with militant groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.
There is still sympathy in Iran for the plight of the Palestinians, but Iranians have developed a sophisticated understanding about the costs and limits of solidarity. Iranian young people are fed up with subsiding the Palestinian cause at the price of their own futures, and view this kind of realignment in their country's dealing with the region as vital to better ties and a better economic relationship with the West.
In the new Egypt, the possibility of dealing more coldly with Israel holds some allure, partly because the Mubarak's government's co-operation with the Jewish state has become enmeshed in people's minds with its myriad other failures. If Iranians are lucky in anything, it's being free of this fuzzy notion. The Iranian government's hostility towards America and Israel means that neither can ever be used as an excuse or a distraction.
This leaves Iranians free to think clearly about whom they wish to befriend in the region, which relationships boost Iran's standing in the world, and which leave its ties to the West in tatters. Their fury at their government's radicalism surfaced in one of the slogans protesters chanted on the street last month: "Not Gaza or Lebanon! Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran!"
From Israel's perspective, Iran is the only country whose domestic tumult offers unequivocally brighter prospects. The recent spate of protests may not have de-stabilised the Iranian government, but the world-view and politics of Iran's opposition movement is still the most secular and pro-Western in the region. A post-uprising Iran would most closely resemble Turkey in its relationship to the region, and would be in no danger of becoming a failed or anarchic state.
The worry for Israel, where Iran is concerned, is not the spectre of what dissent might unleash but how Tehran will seek to exploit the unrest around the region to project its own influence. In recent years, Iran has cultivated its ties with Hamas, and can now use those links to reach out to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Shia-led protests in Bahrain, ostensibly demanding the same rights and opportunities as the country's Sunni minority, are also ripe for Iran's exploitation.
There is no question that Iran views the balance of power in the region as tipping in its favour. But Iran's opposition leaders, with an eye to how neighbouring uprisings might be leveraged to their own cause, are looking ahead for fresh ways to challenge the regime's grip on power. The recent arrests of opposition leaders may spark a new round of protests this spring. Some reformists are focusing on the 2012 parliamentary elections, hoping to launch a campaign of civil disobedience around the time of the vote.
Iran's sizeable diaspora is also actively trying to encourage events on the ground. From organising and supporting Facebook pages dedicated to days of protest, to collecting witness accounts of demonstrations to fill the void of proper news coverage, the diaspora is emerging as a powerful force supporting and inspiring young Iranians. The revolution may not stop at Iran's door just yet, but that doesn't mean all is quiet inside.
Azadeh Moaveni is an Iranian-American journalist, co-author with Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi of 'Iran Awakening' and contributor to, inter alia, Time magazine, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Her books include 'Lipstick Jihad'