Iran Backs Libyan Rebels, Chastises West Over Oil, Bahrain

Semira N. Nikou

       Libya’s rebellion has put Iran in an awkward position. Tehran has tried to balance support for the Libyan opposition, which it views as part of a region-wide “Islamic awakening,” with rejection of the NATO-led military strikes.
       Iranian officials charged that the U.N.-endorsed military intervention on humanitarian grounds is hypocritical and part of a secret Western agenda. Tehran opposes any military intervention in the Middle East, even if in Iran’s interest, because of the precedent it sets. Iran also opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, despite the fact Saddam Hussein was Iran’s main adversary in the region.
       In his Nowrouz (New Year) speech last month, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei charged that the United States and its allies were motivated by interest in Libyan oil. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson said that coalition was pursuing a new form of colonialism.
       U.S. policy on Bahrain, where the ruling al Khalifa family has forcefully crushed the  predominantly Shiite protest movement, has fueled Iran’s anger. Unlike Libya, the United States has used quiet diplomacy to mediate with the Sunni monarchy. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.
       Bahrain is a country of greater strategic importance to Iran than Libya, and the plight of its largely Shiite population has been a sensitive issue inside Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad complained of a “double standard” during a telephone conversation with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
       Iran and Libya have maintained diplomatic relations since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Libya is one of the few Arab countries that supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), and both have denounced Israeli actions at the United Nations. Qaddafi congratulated Ahmadinejad on his victory after the disputed 2009 presidential elections.
       Libya has not been critical in Iran’s foreign policy, although the two countries did take steps in recent years to extend bilateral ties. Iran’s foreign minister visited Tripoli in 2010 to discuss economic ties, including joint oil and gas projects.
       The one constant tension between Iran and Libya has been the mysterious disappearance of Lebanese Shiite leader Musa al Sadr, who was born in Iran. In 1978, Sadr disappeared during an official visit to Libya, which created tensions in relations between Tehran and Tripoli. Sadr’s niece is married to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.
       In March 2011, Sadr’s family speculated that the religious leader might still be alive and imprisoned in Libya, a claim that played a central role in Tehran’s denunciation of Qaddafi’s recent crackdown on the opposition.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
       "The United States and its western (allies) claim they want to defend the people by carrying out military operations or by entering Libya... You did not come to defend the people, you've come after Libyan oil."
       "Iran utterly condemns the behavior of the Libyan government against its people, the killings and pressure on people, and the bombing of its cities... but it (also) condemns the military action in Libya." New Year (Nowrouz) speech on March 21, 2011
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
       "The intervention of some European countries and America in the regional nations increases concern and makes circumstances more complicated."
       "The double standard action of the Western countries in Bahrain and Libya and their silence towards the atrocities of the Zionist regime against the innocent Palestinians shows their contradictory performance in the world." Quoted during a phone conversation with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, April 3, 2011
Ramin Mehmanparast, foreign ministry spokesman
       "These countries enter usually with seductive slogans of supporting the people but they follow their own interests in ruling the countries and continuing colonialism in a new form."
Quoted in the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), March 20, 2011
Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament
       “The West, and specifically the United States, has deceived people in the past with democracy and human rights slogans, but now it is evident that what is of importance to them is oil and the interests of corporations.”
       “The United Nations issues a resolution in support of the people of Libya and engages in widespread attacks against the Libyan regime, while in Bahrain they do the exact opposite. They tell the Saudi army and other Arab countries to enter the country in support of the Bahraini regime…The question is that if the United States and the West want to support the opposition, then why are Gaddafi's bases targeted by aircraft and missiles under the pretext of supporting revolutionary people while the revolutionaries are being repressed in Bahrain?” Quoted in the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) March 26, 2011
Editorial in Sobh-e Sadeq (newspaper linked to the Revolutionary Guards)
       “The best choice for solving the Libyan crisis is the continuation and perseverance of the peoples movement, and pressure on the Qaddafi regime without military expeditions to this country. This way the Libyan people can determine their destiny without foreign intervention.”
April 3, 2011
Editorial in the semi-official Mehr News Agency
       “The recent upheavals have shown that the dictators of the Arab world do not want to learn from the past. All of them—from the Al-Khalifa’s in Bahrain, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya—have chosen a destiny similar to the grim fate of Saddam [Hussein].” March 31, 2011
Iran's National Human Rights Committee

       "Iran's National Human Rights Committee denounces brutal and inhumane acts of Libyan government against its oppressed and defenseless people and extends sympathy with victims and those harmed following violence." March 18, 2011

Read Semira Nikou's chapter on Iran's subsidies conundrum in “The Iran Primer”

Semira N. Nikou works for the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the U.S. Institute of Peace