Iran's threat to export revolution stirs Arab rulers
Iran is reviving talk about "exporting" revolution, and its jittery Arab neighbors seem strangely intent on getting their own political houses in order. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, major Arab oil monarchies, are discussing democratization again. Bahrain, the easygoing island emirate just south of Iran , has banned pork in accordance with Islamic law.
Iran's latest -- though not its only -- verbal barrage came in an interview with Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr published in Beirut Feb. 12. The message: The "masses" should learn from the Iranian revolution and topple bankrupt regimes throughout the Arab world.
"If this is done, none of the existing [Arab] regimes will remain," the Beirut newspaper As Safir quoted Mr. Bani-Sadr as saying. "Once they have collapsed, the entire face of the Arab world would change."
Few Arab diplomats take the Iranian rhetoric literally. Iran has enough problems of its own without worrying about exporting its revolution.
"The Arab jitters seem more amorphous in origin," says one Arab political commentator in Beirut. "It is probably the general fear of unrest -- principally in nearby Iran, but also elsewhere in the Middle East. . . . Something that vague can be genuinely scary to monarchical regimes sitting on a good part of the world's oil wealth."
The November 1979 attack at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, can have done little to allay such fears, however "vague." Rebels -- religious fanatics, according to the Saudis; "revolutionaries," according to some Arab press reports -- struck at a central symbol to Saudi Arabia's Islamic monarchy. It took two weeks, and many casualties, for Saudi authorities to restore order.
Arab diplomats in Beirut maintain that it is far from coincidental that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, an oil state also ruled by a royal family, now are reviving efforts at liberalization.
As Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was taking over a year ago, the Saudi press suddenly began talking about establishment of a formal "consultative council" to share decision-making with the ruling House of al Saud. Kuwaiti newspapers began talking of moves to reinstate parliament, dissolved by an uneasy emir in the summer of 1976.
Then the reports tapered off. But Iran has become, if anything, more unstable and more militant. Violence has erupted in Saudi Arabia's -- and Islam's -- holiest shrine. Officials in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- not just newspapers this time -- are again talking of democracy.
Saudi Crown Prince Fahd, in a series of recent interviews, has said work is under way to create a formal consultative council with some 200 "statutes of government" for the body.
Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmed al-Sabah of Kuwait, meanwhile, appointed a committee Feb. 10 to revise the country's Constitution as a prelude to "resumption of parliamentary life."
Both countries already practice what one Arab diplomat terms a "measure of desert democracy, with the ruling families genuinely trying to maintain close appreciation of -- and contact with -- their peoples."
But both must deal with at least the threat of instability, if only because of large and relatively disadvantaged immigrant populations. In Kuwait, the immigrants -- mostly Palestinian -- outnumber the natives.
The anticipated changes, Arab diplomats believe, will be in large measure cosmetic. The Kuwaiti ruling family -- mindful the Parliament was dissolved partly out of fears that the Palestinians might turn Kuwait into "another Lebanon" -- has emphasized that it wants to "avoid the shortcomings of previous parliamentary experience."
Prince Fahd has stressed that the planned consultative council will simply "complement" the existing council of ministers that rules in conjunction with King Khalid and Prince Fahd, himself the "first deputy prime minister" and effective Cabinet chief.
But as one veteran Arab analyst in Beirut puts it, "The very fact that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are moving forward with such political changes seems a clear measure of the heightened uneasiness over Iran and other reminders of instability."