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​Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Qatar University and director of the Gulf Studies Center,

The ACRPS welcomed Mahjoob Zweiri, Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History at Qatar University and director of the Gulf Studies Center, to present the weekly seminar on Wednesday 7 November 2018. Dr. Zweiri has published extensively on Iran and the Middle East and gave a lecture on “The Iranian Role in Preventing Arab Democratic Transition: A Comparative Study of Iranian Behaviour in Syria and Yemen”.

Zweiri presented a comparative analysis of the Iranian role in Syria and in Yemen, describing it as one of several factors that impeded democratic transition in both countries. Zweiri noted the mechanisms adopted by Tehran to prevent this transition through promoting the idea that the popular uprisings in Syria and Yemen were ignited by foreign forces. He also argued that the political vacuum and the absence of a democratic alternative offered by the political movements in both states resulted in a state of chaos which, in turn, led to the proliferation of terrorist movements. These movements dominated the political and military scenes, which led to greater Iranian influence and interference in Syria and Yemen.

Zweiri outlined the major milestones of the Iranian interaction with the Arab Popular uprisings since they began in Tunisia in 2010. When the uprisings began in North Africa (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya), Iran dealt with them as an extension of what Tehran called The Islamic Revival (sometimes referred to as the Islamic Awaking, which began in 1979. The second major milestone was the shift in the Iranian position and its foreign policy following the spread of the Arab uprisings to the Arab Mashreq (Syria, Bahrain, Yemen). The Iranian position then began to become apparent. Iran believed that the events in Bahrain could push the Shia forces to the forefront of politics and so supported the movement through official discourse and media. In contrast, it opposed the Syrian revolution, which Tehran considered a threat to its interests and provided financial and military support to the Syrian regime.
Zweiri provided examples from the Iranian narrative that Tehran promoted onto public opinion. It painted the political movements in Syria and Yemen not as a revolution, but as a foreign conspiracy against the security and stability in those countries. Iran played around with the terminology it used regarding the popular movements in Yemen and Syria and used the word crisis instead of revolution to convey the idea of foreign intervention and political agenda. Tehran did not believe in the legitimacy of the popular demands for social justice. One of the most important mechanisms used by Iran in countering the revolution and resisting the democratic transition is their linkage of popular movements with terrorist ones, such as the ISIL in Syria and Iraq or Al Qaeda in Yemen.

In the Syrian case, Iran dealt with it as an immediate threat to its regional interests and adopted a hard-line position to confront the revolution, which began peacefully, offering economic, military and political support to the Syrian regime. Additionally, to prevent the democratic transition in Syria, Tehran promoted the idea that there was no organized opposition or one that had administrative experience. It also tried to spread the idea that all opposition groups were terrorists and linked to foreign interests, spreading doubts about the legitimacy of all the opposition groups in Syria.

Regarding Yemen, Zweiri said that Tehran did not recognize the existence of a revolution in Yemen until the Houthis seized power and tried to assume the rule of the country in the latter half of 2014. He attributed the growing strength of the Houthis to the military support they receive from Iran and their alliance with the forces of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Iranian-Saudi rivalry cannot be overlooked as an essential element of Iranian policy in Yemen. Consequently, Iran has focused on obstructing ​​the idea of a Yemeni state by handing it over to a group unqualified to manage state and society and has weaponized Yemen in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia, devastating the democratic goals of the Yemeni revolution.