Syria Looms as Second Thought Over Iranian Unrest


UNITED NATIONS—Iran’s antigovernment uprising marked its 10th day on Friday, challenging the Islamic Republic’s ruling regime as well as world powers searching uneasily for a diplomatic response that fits in a region rife with unrest, violence and crisis.

The protests, which have engulfed Iranian cities of all sizes and the country’s working class population centers, are reminiscent of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 that toppled autocratic regimes across the region.

But diplomats, Iran watchers and even middle-class Iranians—many who have chosen to sit out the protests—are watching to see whether Iran stands to go the way of Tunisia, with a turn toward flourishing democracy and relative stability, or Syria, shredded by civil war and infested with terrorist organizations.

Until now, reaction among world leaders has been far from united. The U.S. administration has endorsed the protests, with President

Donald Trump

on Twitter advocating for change in Iran, while Europeans, along with leaders in Asia and Russia struck a more cautious tone, warning of the potential for unintended consequences.

Some Western diplomats said that the “unpredictable outcome” of the Arab Spring—particularly in Syria—serves as a caution against rushing to support unrest or regime change in Iran.

“If we look at what happened in Syria and Arab Spring, these things can start like this [peaceful protests] and become threats to international peace and security,” said a Western Council diplomat.

Countries debated how to respond at an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting held Friday at the request of the U.S. Many diplomats, including key Washington allies, expressed reservations concerning overt moves in support of protests.

“The stability and security of Iran is linked to the stability and security of region and the world as a whole,” said Kuwait Ambassador Mansour Al-Otaibi, adding that the international community must draw lessons from the “disastrous outcomes” of the Arab Spring uprising and Syria.

U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called for all countries to help amplify the voices of Iranians seeking freedom and said “nothing will stop Americans” from standing in solidarity with them.

But none of representatives of the other 14 countries who spoke after Ms. Haley echoed the same tone. Diplomats stopped short of expressing open support for protests or condemnation for he Iranian regime.

European members of the Security Council—the U.K., France, Sweden and Netherlands—all called for peaceful dialogue between the opposition and government and urged Iran to take their demands seriously. China and Russia and others, including France, said the protests in Iran should not have come before the Council for discussion and didn’t meet Council criteria such as threats to international security and peace.

Many of the diplomats cited the chaos in the Middle East and said Iran’s stability was crucial to regional stability. Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vasily Nebenzya, singled out Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. “All these open wounds will remind us of the danger of geopolitical engineering,” he said.

Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. Gholamali Khoshroo accused the U.S. of abusing its power at the Council and listed previous incidents where the U.S. meddled in Iran’s domestic affairs. Mr. Khoshroo said that in Iran, as in any other “democratic nation,” people protested and the unrest was instigated by foreign agents.

Several Western diplomats stressed the need to keep the protests separate from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran, which the Trump administration has singled out for criticism.

As protests continued to rock Iran for the first time since Iranians took to the streets in 2009 in the aftermath of a disputed presidential election, Iranians themselves voiced uncertainty over whether to support the uprising, along with concern for the potential consequences.

One 37-year-old employee of a state bank in Tehran with a college degree, said that she and her family had marched in the Green Movement protests of 2009, but had stayed home this time.

“We say Syria is our mirror of lessons,” said the woman, Fatemeh, in a phone interview from Tehran. “We don’t know what will happen if the regime is toppled. There is no good alternative.”

Nonetheless, thousands of protesters have continued to take to the streets every day targeting the regime and its top ruler Supreme Leader Ayatollah

Ali Khamenei,

chanting “death to Khamenei” and “clerics get lost.”

“The intellectuals and reformists are on the margins saying, ‘Be careful—we will become Syria and Libya,” said independent NY-based Iran expert and blogger Rouzbeh Mirebrahimi, “while the working class has run out of patience with all sides and feels they have nothing more to lose.”

Hamidreza Jalaipour, a prominent reformist political analyst in Tehran, said in a tape circulated online on Friday that if the protests continue for another six months at their current pace, “any regime would be toppled.”

That prospect unsettled other experts. “People are rightly worried about turning Iran into Syria knowing full well that the regime is surely capable of such infamy,” said Abbas Milani Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. “The ruin that is Syria today is rightly giving pause to all actors.”

Write to Farnaz Fassihi at

Appeared in the January 6, 2018, print edition as ‘World Powers Debate Response To Iranian Demonstrations.’

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