It’s not hard to understand why the Iranian government is cheering events in Egypt. Watching what’s going on in Egypt right now must be hard for American diplomats and CIA personnel on the job long enough to remember what happened in Iran in 1979. The two situations are eerily similar in many respects, and not just in the rhetoric of their faltering leaders. Ponder the similarities:
* Mubarak is an autocratic ruler who has been in power for decades, as was the Shah. In both cases they have been supported by the United States even though we don’t really like them but because we think they’re a crucial partner in a strategic region (during the Cold War the boogie man was the USSR with which Iran shares a 1,000+ mile border, today the boogie man is terrorism).
* In both cases, the White House administration in office during the unrest is one that talks a good talk when it comes to human rights promotion in general but doesn’t necessarily walk the walk when it comes to the country in question (Carter of course talked about human rights more than any other president but it’s hard to point to any lines he ever drew in the sand with regard to Iran’s treatment of its own people as he was agreeing to deliver, for instance, more AWACS military surveillance aircraft than the U.S. itself had deployed at the time).
* In neither case has the army turned out to be nearly as loyal to the ruling faction as it had been assumed beforehand (in Egypt Mubarak is of course a former military officer so the military’s apparent siding with the protesters is a bit of a shock; in the case of Iran the army has always been associated closely with the king, so much so that it came close to being disbanded out of mistrust under the Islamic Republic). Coincidentally, Mubarak’s chosen branch of service was the Air Force, as was the Shah’s.
* In both cases the autocratic ruler has announced a last ditch change in government (while maintaining the head himself) in hopes it will assuage the public unrest.
* In both cases the rulers even have relationships with Israel that are out of step with those of the surrounding region, not that that’s directly related to the current unrest.
* Egypt, like Iran during the Shah’s rule is notorious for corruption.
* In both cases there is an easy link to U.S. support of the regime. In the case of Iran there were countless examples. In Egypt today, protesters are picking up tear gas canisters fired by the police and realizing that they have “Made in the U.S.A.” stamped on them.
* In both cases you have an American government unprepared for the situation. Vice President Biden’s foolish recent comments that Mubarak isn’t a dictator and shouldn’t step down echo Carter in the waning days of the Shah’s rule.
* In both cases, Americans by and large are unaware of of the situation in Egypt and their perceptions of the country are rooted in ancient stories and stereotypes.
* In both cases there is a popular figure who returns amidst the chaos who has called for reforms while outside of the country for years (in the case of Iran this was of course Khomeini; in the case of Egypt this is Mohamed ElBaradei). Though this connection is tenuous at best since ElBaradei wasn’t exiled by Mubarak and there is no religious authority he can claim.
* Ironically, the Shah himself is buried in Egypt (which is where he fled to from his own country in 1979 while Mubarak was serving as vice president).
(One missing key element from all these comparisons though is that Mubarak has not tied his fates to the success of any far-reaching, lopsidedly carried out and ill-paced modernization program like the Shah’s White Revolution.)
So the question is, which side of history will the United States end up on this time around?
Update: While I’m listing similarities, I might as well also mention the low hanging fruit of comparisons– the ones that are so obvious that I didn’t mention before when I was typing up this post. For instance, both governments hold elections regularly but they’re also recognized universally as rigged. Both governments have rubber stamp legislative branches. In both countries human rights advocates have long-complained of torture and an unfair judicial system, both countries have been the recipients of staggering US military aid (Egypt receives $1.5B worth annually; in the case of Iran however most outright aid had ceased in the mid 1960s and by the late 1970s all military transactions were conducted on a cash basis because Iran was flush with oil money after OPEC staged a series of oil price increases), etc.