Hardship blunts Iranian interest in Arab protests

TEHRAN Mon Apr 11, 2011 11:25am EDT

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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's leaders say uprisings in the Arab world were inspired by its 1979 revolution, but most ordinary Iranians are too worn down by economic hardship to care about the export of their system of Islamic rule.

"Our movement was suppressed and now we are just so busy with skyrocketing living costs after the removal of subsidies on fuel and food," said Abbas, a shopkeeper in downtown Tehran, who refused to give his last name.

Customers in his small grocery store talk less of the Arab spring' uprisings that are reshaping geopolitics in the region, and more of the sudden price rise of items like cheese, eggs and fresh produce since subsidies were slashed at the end of the Persian year in March.

A small television in Abbas's shop is constantly tuned to the state-run new channel where bloody images of suppressed protests in Bahrain are a regular feature as Tehran rails against the Sunni monarchy's actions against Shi'ite protesters.

While not unmoved by the scenes of brother Muslims under the boot of Western-backed autocrats, most Iranians are more concerned about their own day-to-day problems than their government's jostling for influence in the changing Middle East.

"How can people in the world be inspired by a revolution that happened 30 years ago and has always faced serious problems?" asked Youness, a 36-year-old hairdresser.

Abbas, a supporter of the Green movement protests that were violently quashed after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, believes those demonstrations, the biggest since the Iranian revolution, showed the way for the Arab unrest.

"The experience of street unrest that we had some two years ago is what people in the region are experiencing these days," he said.

ECONOMIC PINCH

But attempts to reignite Green protests in February were stifled by a huge police turnout, the death by shooting of two people during a February 14 protest, and the unofficial house arrest that has silenced the movement's leaders.

Abbas does not believe the domino effect which has rippled across the region from Tunisia will lead to upheaval in Iran in the short term.

"It will take some time to think and act on our political demands," he said.

Some Iranians, even though they are feeling the economic pinch, nevertheless support the government's stance toward the events in the region.

"Our independent policies and the religious democracy that we have in Iran could always be a role model for our neighboring states," said Abdollah Meshkat, a school teacher.

The main concern for middle-income Iranians is economics, not geopolitics, especially since Ahmadinejad's subsidy cuts pushed up the price of gasoline seven-fold and had a similar impact on once lavishly subsidized gas and electricity.

"We taxi drivers work for the government until noon and to make money for ourselves from then until night time," was a typical complaint from a Tehran cabbie whose fares have risen slightly, but not enough to compensate for the fuel price hike.

SYRIA IN FOCUS

If Iranians find a moment to put aside their economic woes and consider the regional unrest, it is Syria -- a relative newcomer to the Arab spring -- that grabs their attention.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shares Iran's antipathy toward Washington and support for militant groups Hamas and Hizbollah.

Iran's former ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Irani, said many people in the region had believed only pro-U.S. regimes would face popular uprisings, but when it reached Syria, they realized "the main demand is to realize people's forgotten rights" regardless of a country's diplomatic allegiances.

Reform-minded Iranians says if Syria is forced to change, why not Iran?

State-dominated Iranian media have given scant attention to events in Syria, but that has not stopped news spreading via illegal satellite television and the Internet.

"Why they don't say a single word about Syria?" asked Shirin, a 41 architect. "The world has become like a small village and everyone knows what's happening there."

Older Iranians who lived through revolutionary turmoil are less inclined to seek sudden radical change than young Arabs, said a political analyst who declined to be identified.

"This is what at least we Iranians, who are tired of the outcomes of the revolution, war and sanctions, want. We need a gradual but fundamental reform, not a sudden change."

But some younger reformists say a return of demonstrations in Iran should not be counted out.

"The reform course and the opposition movement are not suppressed but are planning for the next rounds of action. I am sure the ruling establishment is doing the same," said a 23-year-old pro-reform art student.

(Editing by Paul Taylor)

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