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Mixed Media

As Western media outlets obsessively cover the protests in Iran, the Arab press has been approaching the events with mixed emotions. Since much of the media in the Middle East is state-controlled, press coverage provides an interesting window into the complex relationship between Iran and the Arab world.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been leading Arab opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. These countries, worried about Iran’s quest for regional domination, would be expected to highlight the recent tumult in their state organs. But the media in both countries have been eerily quiet on the issue. On Sunday, following the most violent day of clashes, Saudi paper Al-Riyadh followed its week-long habit of burying Iran news low on the front page with a headline not about regime attacks on protestors, but about the fishy suicide bombing at the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini--which many Iranian Twitterers suspect was a Reichstag-like government gambit to discredit protestors. Egypt’s heavily state-controlled media has been similarly nonchalant. On Saturday, Al-Ahram, the establishment daily, led with coverage of President Hosni Mubarak’s latest op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. At the bottom of the page, hidden below the fold, was a small piece on Iran from the news wires. Even the relatively liberal and independent Al-Masri Al-Youm featured a piece about swine flu as its top story on Friday.

The lackluster coverage belies the fact that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as much as they fear Iran’s regional designs, are probably just as afraid of their uncomfortable internal similarities. Egypt, like Iran, has democratic pretensions, holding vaguely free elections while making it impossible for a real opposition to gain power. And Saudi Arabia’s ruling dynasty, like Iran’s velayat-e-faqih system of clerical rule, claims the mandate of heaven itself. Perhaps worried that their populations would get dangerous ideas of voicing their own discontent, or to ascribe too much significance to unrest in a country whose influence they are keen to minimize, the national papers of both countries seem committed to downplaying the events.

On the other hand, the Lebanese press has probably been the most supportive of the Iranian opposition. This is particularly true of outlets associated with the March 14 coalition, which rivals the Iranian-backed March 8 coalition under Hezbollah. Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Nahar, and the Daily Star, unlike the Saudi papers, show dramatic pictures of huge crowds in Iran. Lebanese writer Raghida Dergham argued on Friday that the victory of pro-Western forces in Lebanon’s elections just a week before the Iranian polls stiffened Khamenei’s determination not to suffer “two defeats"--one in Lebanon and one at home.

Newspapers in Syria, arguably the only Arab state closely allied with Iran, have essentially ignored the upheaval. The headline in Syria's own Al-Watan on Friday was "President Assad calls for linking the four seas [the Caspian, Black, Red, and Mediterranean] and progress in economic ties." After a dramatic weekend in Iran, Monday’s front page flagged an interview with the Greek president and a report on Palestinian unity talks. Stories on Iran have been buried, often off of Page 1, and like many of the Saudi papers, call Mir Hossein Mousavi "the losing candidate" in Iran's elections. Similarly, the website of al-Manar, the television channel of Syria-backed Hezbollah, straightforwardly refers to Ahmadinejad as the winning presidential candidate.

The Gulf emirates--with large amount of oil money, relatively secular regimes, and no large population of disaffected youth--aren’t as worried as Saudi Arabia about the effect of the opposition overthrowing Iran’s Islamic regime. Also, the emirates’ many territorial disputes with Iran make them particularly hostile to the regime. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, papers there have been free to show burning debris and defiant protestors; Monday’s Al-Bayan noted 10 killed on Sunday in a banner headline, and the English-language Gulf News ran a detailed account of Iran’s violence and mayhem. (Bahrain, which has a Shia majority, is an exception; an Arab-nationalist newspaper, Akhbar al-Khaleej, was temporarily shut down because of an article critical of Iran’s leadership.)

The pan-Arab papers, edited outside the region, are mostly as obsessed with covering the protests as the Western media. Their news reports convey a sense that real shifts are occurring within the Islamic Republic. Al Sharq Al Awsat, a London-based pan-Arab daily, devoted the first five pages of its Saturday edition to events in Iran. Its headline boldly declared, “Velayat-e-faqih is at Stake," above a picture of Khamenei during his speech on Friday and another of an Iranian protester, most of her face covered with a green mask and a sign saying, “We stand for our right."

Iran also dominates their op-ed pages. In Al Hayat, another London-based pan-Arab daily paper, Mohammad Salah predicts a crisis for Islamists more broadly in the current turmoil facing the Iranian model. In Saturday’s edition of Al Sharq Al Awsat, editor-in-chief Tariq Alhomayed wrote a column entitled "Iran--The Supreme Leader’s Fatal Mistake" in which he argues that Iran’s "mask of democracy has begun to slip" and there is “no chance of rescuing the regime’s image and saving face." On June 19, Abdel Wahhab Al-Afandi, in Al Quds Al Arabi, a Palestinian-owned pan-Arab daily based in London, went as far as dubbing the current crisis Iran’s third revolution.

Whatever happens in Iran is unlikely to set off a chain of events across the Arab world, as much as sophisticated pro-Western Lebanese or journalists for the pan-Arab outlets in London and New York try to fan the flames. But judging from the cautious "coverage" in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, the region’s most repressive regimes are not taking their chances.

Josie Delap is an editor for The Economist on-line in London, and Robert Lane Greene writes for The Economist in New York.

By Josie Delap and Robert Lane Greene