Egypt sparks Iran to crack down on dissidents

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman; this is The World. If the Egyptian protests force President Hosni Mubarak to step down, there could be celebrations in Iran, too. But different people there might celebrate for different reasons. Critics of the government there hope that a successful uprising in Egypt might re-ignite the protests of 2009. Iranian officials, on the other hand, say that the ouster of the Egyptian leader would echo the 1979 Islamic revolution. They are trying to ensure that's the precedent that wins out. Barbara Slavin has written about Tehran's recent moves in the new issue of foreign policy. She says that Iranian authorities are seizing the moment by cracking down on dissidents.

Barbara Slavin: They are executing a record number of people, including political prisoners, including dual-nationals, which is very unusual. Over the weekend they executed a Dutch-Iranian woman who had been picked up in protests in 2009, and they charged her with drug-trafficking, a charge that her family rejects. So the Iranians have now executed more than 80 people of January. This is a record and it puts Iran in a very uncomfortable category as the biggest executor of prisoners per capita in the world.

Werman: Well, two questions quickly. Why are they doing this? Isn't that going to rile people up? And do you see any dots to be connected between these executions and what's going on in Egypt right now?

Slavin: Yes, I do. I think they are both taking advantage of the media focus on Egypt, and at the same time they are trying to intimidate their own people so that there won't be more demonstrations in Iran. We are now entering a ten-day period that's called the ââ?¬Å?ten days of dawnââ?¬  in Iran. This marks the anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution, to Iran, and then the fall on February 11, 1979, of the last government of the Shah. Iran normally has a lot of public demonstrations during this time period. It climaxes on February 11th; Revolution Day. It's kind of like their Fourth of July. And last year they succeeded in flooding Tehran with security forces and with pro-government demonstrators. Obviously the regime wants to make sure that the Green Movement, the opposition movement, doesn't get courageous and come out on the streets again on this February 11th. So this is going to be a very sensitive time, the next ten days in Iran.

Werman: And are you hearing or seeing any indications that this 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution could be a moment for anti-government protests?

Slavin: You know, the people in Iran are watching their televisions. They're watching satellite television and they see what's going on in Egypt. And Iranians are very proud of the fact that they are Persians, not Arabs. And the thought that somehow the Arabs are now besting them at something only Iran was able to do in the Middle East up until now â�" have a real, popular, revolution â�" I'm sure that this rankles. And I'm already seeing some calls on Facebook and elsewhere for people to come out and demonstrate again in Iran on February 11th.

Werman: Barbara, if Mubarak goes in Egypt and Egypt does not play out like Iran in 1979, Iran will find itself again the only theocracy in the region. How will Iran feel about that? How will its leaders react?

Slavin: Iran is in an interesting position right now. Things are going rather well for it outside, but not so well inside. If you look at the regional strategic lineup, there have been great victories for Iran, mostly due to the United States â�" the removal of Saddam Hussein; the removal of the Taliban; the changes that we've seen in Lebanon where Hezbollah has become much more powerful. Egypt, whatever comes out of this, may not be such a loyal U.S. ally; may not be such a loyal Israeli partner. And that benefits Iran. But at the same time you have within Iran this tremendously restive population. You have economic problems which have been compounded by sanctions. Iran has recently lifted subsidies on key goods. We haven't yet really seen the fallout from that. People have been given cash payments but those will run out. And a lot of people are predicting unrest this spring in Iran. So if I were Mahmoud Ahmadinejad I would not be feeling that confident.

Werman: Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. She is the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. Barbara, thanks a lot.

Slavin: My pleasure.