By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 7, 2011; 10:48 AM
TEHRAN - As described by Iran's leaders, the uprising in Egypt has served as vindication of their country's Islamic revolution 32 years ago. But for the opposition here, the scenes on the streets of Cairo have brought stark reminders of their own unfinished quest for political reform.
The divergent narratives illustrate the deep divide that separates President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters from a struggling opposition movement made up of middle-class urbanites and politicians who were pushed from power. They also underscore the uncertainty over where events in Egypt will lead, allowing political opposites to view them through their own lens.
In endorsing the popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia, Iranian leaders have called them a sign that the region is rising up against the United States. In a sermon on Friday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, likened the events to an "earthquake" that is uprooting American "servants" among Arab leaders, reflecting diminishing American power.
To disgruntled Iranians, though, the sight of the Iranian government cheering on the Egyptian protesters is seen as deeply ironic. In 2009, when Iranians themselves launched massive protests against the government here, Iran's leaders labeled them "Western-backed rioters" and sent paramilitary forces wielding batons and tear gas to quash their revolt.
Still, opposition leaders are hoping to use the events in Egypt as a new catalyst, and are seeking permission from the government to launch a demonstration next Monday in the center of Tehran.
Former presidential challengers Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi said they wanted to invite people to march "to express solidarity with . . . the freedom-seeking revolts of the people of Tunis and Egypt against despotic regimes," Karroubi's Web site, Sahamnews, said on Sunday.
Past requests for such marches have all been denied by the government. But the appeal illustrates that the opposition movement remains alive, and, like the government, sees itself as sharing the goals of the Egyptian protesters.
The government itself is preparing for state-backed rallies on Friday marking the 32nd anniversary of the 1979 revolution, which overthrew Iran's monarchy after millions of Iranians had taken to the streets to force the departure of the U.S.-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
It took time for other Islamic nations to emulate Iran's experience, Khamenei admitted in his Friday sermon. But Iran's "steadfast" anti-American policies have led to the admiration from "oppressed people worldwide," and the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia show that the Islamic republic has turned into a role model for the region, he said.
While Khamenei has portrayed events in Egypt as an Islamic awakening inspired by Iran, most opposition groups in Egypt, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, have stressed the secular nature of their protests.
Just as the Iranian revolution led to a break in ties between Iran and the United States, it also contributed to deep strains between Iran and Egypt, which offered the deposed shah asylum and, after his death in 1980, allowed his body to be buried in Cairo. Iran responded by naming a street in Tehran after Khalid Islambouli, who assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
The relationship has warmed slightly in recent years, but enormous divisions remain, particularly over Egypt's role as a leader in making peace with Israel. This week, Khamenei said anti-Americanism - not economics - is the driving force behind the anti-government anger in Egypt.
"The people of Egypt feel small and humiliated because of Hosni Mubarak's blind obedience of America and Israel. This is the main reason for the revolt," Khamenei said.
State media in Iran have been airing footage of the protests, with commentators and politicians egging on Egyptian anti-government demonstrators and decrying violence used by the Mubarak's supporters.
"The time has come for kings and tyrannical rulers to step down," Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi told the official Islamic Republic News Agency on Saturday.
In confronting Iranian protesters in the summer of 2009, Iran's leaders treated the protests as a Western-backed conspiracy intended to topple the Islamic leadership. The government ordered Internet access and mobile phone networks cut off, while satellite-television receivers were jammed. Thousands of people were arrested and more than 100 prominent activists, journalists and politicians were put on televised mass trials where they were presented as the masterminds of the unrest.
One analyst who strongly supports Iran's system of religious governance said there is no connection between the protesters in Egypt and those who took to streets in Iran in 2009.
"The Egyptian people are now seeking independence from the U.S. and other powers," said Amir Mohebbian, who heads a strategic research center. "That is a good thing." But, he said, "during the radical uprising of 2009 in Iran, the protesters aimed to undermine Iran's strong position against imperialist powers such as the U.S. Therefore these protest movements are incomparable."
Abbas Abdi, an analyst critical of the government, said Iran's support for Egyptian and Tunisian protesters could boomerang.
"They do not realize that by supporting the North African demonstrations, they are also supporting protests in general," said Abdi, who was among the revolutionaries who helped to topple the shah in 1979. "In the future it will make any clampdown on protests by Iranian people a lot harder."