Iran sees the turmoil in the Arab world playing to its benefit, with new governments likely to emulate the Islamic Republic's independence from the U.S. and other Western powers, Iran's envoy to the United Nations said.
"The geo-political picture of the region is changing in favor of Iran," Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee said in an interview yesterday in his New York office. "The movement in the region is against the old system of dictatorship kinds of governments, having rulers that follow the wishes of the big powers in the world."
The unrest that has shaken or toppled governments from Tunisia to Bahrain will create a "different power structure," Khazaee said. "You will have a different Egypt. You will have a different Libya. You have a different Tunisia."
The new leaders may respect Iran's strength in pursuing its "national interests without listening to outsiders the way Hosni Mubarak was listening to them," he said.
Khazaee referred to the deposed president of Egypt, a U.S. ally who made peace with Israel and promoted an end to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.
The transition in the Arab world might strengthen Iran's standing and pose a threat to the West if Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest organized opposition group, gain strength, according to Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council.
"Certainly there is a danger," Berman said in an interview. "The new regime in Egypt may be more favorable to a partnership with Iran than Mubarak was. Certainly, Iran has tried very hard to project a sense of triumphalism."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El-Arabi met with an Iranian official in Cairo today, as the Egyptian media reported talks toward restoring diplomatic relations severed by Iran in 1980 to protest Egypt's recognition of Israel.
"We are evaluating all the relations with all countries that we are not having relations with, including Iran," Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt's ambassador to the UN said in an interview. "We have always been independent We will develop whatever model is suitable for us."
Iran since 2003 has been at odds with the U.S. and its allies over the aims of its nuclear program, which the West suspects is intended to produce atomic weapons. Iran says the program is for peaceful purposes and has refused to abandon it. The UN Security Council has passed sanctions that include a ban on the sale or purchase of military weapons.
Pressing the UN
The government in Tehran, which has criticized Western military action in Libya and Saudi Arabia's deployment of troops to quell unrest in Bahrain, has asked the UN to help stop those interventions. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appealed to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a telephone conversation on April 3, Khazaee said.
"If the secretary-general can do something, it is up to him," Khazaee said.
The UN released a statement saying that Ban in the phone call emphasized "the importance of protecting civilians and of upholding human rights." There was no indication that Ban, who supports the Western intervention in Libya, was backing off.
Concern about Iran's influence in the region emerged at an April 3 meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia of foreign ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council. They issued a statement criticizing Iran for interfering in domestic politics of Kuwait and Bahrain amid uprisings there.
"Iran has since 1979 claimed that the Islamic revolution is a model that should be exported," Gala Riani, a Middle East analyst at London-based forecaster IHS Global Insight said in an interview. "They will try to use what is happening to their benefit, to say that this is what they have been talking about all along," he said.
Khazaee's talk of increased stature for Iran may be intended to "shore up the legitimacy of the regime, which is under severe question," Riani said.
The danger for Iran, according to Berman and Riani, is that the democratic stirrings in the region will spawn increasing protests against the government in Tehran.
"There is a huge undercurrent of danger for the Iranians that the ambassador did not talk about," Berman said. "He works for a repressive regime that does not follow the dictates of its own people. The unrest in the region has the potential for transforming his government as well."
Khazaee said there is a qualitative difference between the protests in Bahrain, Egypt and elsewhere in the region because Iran has the "best democratic system in the region," and any disputes there are "in the nature of a democracy."
Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights group, classifies Iran as a "not free" country where freedom of expression is "severely limited" and anti-government protests have been "violently" suppressed.