Daily Star staff TEHRAN: An unseasonable snowstorm that lashed Tehran over the weekend caught many Iranians by surprise.
But when the discussion with Iranian officials turns from weather to the sweeping regional developments, the expressions of surprise and bemusement turn to one of determination and confidence.
The officials say Iran sees Arab revolutions redrawing the geopolitical map of the Middle East to its advantage. The changes will boost Tehran’s strategic position in the region at the expense of the United States and its allies, dealing a devastating blow.
“Contrary to what some are saying that the change in Egypt would lead to it playing a bigger regional role and squeezing Iran and Turkey, we believe that our role will be enhanced with the revival of Egypt,” a senior Iranian Foreign Ministry official told a group of visiting Lebanese journalists.
“The emerging rectangle of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Egypt will be the decisive force in changing the face of the Middle East and the world,” he said. “America’s hegemony will be broken here, in the region that gives the world most of its oil and transit international trade routes.”
The official said a clear sign of the emboldened Iranian approach was the crossing of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal last month for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, just days after the fall of key U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak.
“It was a message, and the message reached its intended target loud and clear,” the official said. Asked whom the message was aimed at, the official only said that the two warships had been shadowed by U.S. Navy ships till they reached the canal.
“It was a message that we are here in the region, in the Mediterranean. That the sanctions [against Iran] are broken. A message to prove that we will not stand still or retreat,” he said.
The United States and Israel had expressed concerns over the passage of the Iranian ships through Suez. The crossing also provided the nascent Egyptian revolution with its first foreign policy challenge.
Iranian officials said they expected more Arab governments to face popular upheavals, while playing down the protests in Tehran.
A second official said the protests were small in numbers and posed no threat to the government in Tehran.
“The situation is totally under control. The areas of the protests is limited and their numbers are often in the few hundreds,” he told The Daily Star.
He accused Western media of grossly exaggerating the protests to harm Iran’s image. Iranwitnessed large-scale demonstrations in 2009 in protest against alleged rigging of the result of an election that gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term.
The official said the “Arab awakening” meant that rulers in the Gulf would have to bridge the gap between themselves and their peoples.
“They will have to introduce reforms and give the people the right to participate in government and more say in running their lives,” he said.
The officials say the Shiite majority in Bahrain appeared on its way to winning major concessions from the king but would not pursue a regime change.
“Iran is keeping away from public statements on Bahrain so that we are not accused of interfering. But it’s clear the regime will have to make major concessions, it already started,” the second official said.
As for ally Syria, the official said a major anti-government uprising was highly unlikely.
“Syria is different. The government and the people there speak the same language when it comes to national issues like supporting the resistance movements,” he said.
However, he added that the Syrian leadership was likely to take steps to tackle corruption and to ease restrictions on political participation.
The Foreign Ministry official also expected Jordan to change its regional posture soon.
“The future belongs to the movement of Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestineand Jordan,” he said.
“This is the new Middle East.”