It was meant to be a crowning moment in which Iran put its own Islamic stamp on the Arab Spring. More than a thousand young activists were flown here earlier this week (at government expense) for a conference on “the Islamic Awakening,” Tehran’s effort to rebrand the popular Arab uprisings of the past year.
As delegates flooded into a vast auditorium next to a space needle in western Tehran, a screen showed images of the Iranian revolution in 1979, morphing seamlessly into footage of young Arab protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.
But there was a catch. No one was invited from Syria, whose autocratic president, Bashar al-Assad, is a crucial Iranian ally. The Syrian protesters are routinely dismissed by Tehran’s government as foreign agents — despite the fact that they are Muslims fighting a secular (and brutal) dictatorship.
That inconvenient truth soon marred the whole script. As the conference began, a young man in the audience held up a sign with the word “SYRIA?” written in English. Applause burst out in the crowd, followed by boos. Audience members began chanting the slogan of the Syrian protesters: “God, freedom and Syria!” But they were drowned out by others chanting pro-Assad slogans.
Soon afterward, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, took the stage to deliver his opening remarks and tackled the subject with his characteristic bluntness.
“We must be vigilant: the West is trying to foment sectarian conflict in our societies, as part of their goal of keeping Israel alive,” he said. “Today Syria, tomorrow your country.”
Those words drew choreographed chants of approval from a claque in the audience. But many participants clearly were not buying, and the uprising inside the conference hall seemed to have left its mark. In the afternoon, journalists were barred from the proceedings.
“We were given strict instructions not to say anything about Syria,” one smirking reporter for a state-run Iranian news agency said during a break.