As of Wednesday evening, the “moderate Islamist” Ennahda party had won 65 of the 159 seats announced in the 217-seat constituent assembly, which will be tasked with drafting a new constitution for Tunisia.
Ennahda said it would nominate its secretary-general, Hamadi Jbeli, as prime minister. An engineer and journalist, Jbeli was imprisoned for 15 years by the regime of ousted President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali for membership in a banned organization and “attempting to change the nature of the state.”
Ennahda leaders have pledged to plot a moderate course, and during the election campaign cited as a model the Islamist parties ruling Turkey and Malaysia rather than the Taliban or Saudi leaders.
Analysts also note that secular parties will also be present in the constituent assembly (the party taking second place in the results so far is the centrist Congress Party for the Republic, which has expressed cautious interest in forming a coalition with Ennahda.
Despite those indications, Iran is characterizing the election outcome as a victory for the Islamist tendency.
“As the wave of Islamic awaking started to rise in Tunisia, we also observed that the first election was held in this country, and the Ennahda party gained a relative victory in the election,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who now serves as senior advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday.
“The result of the election in Tunisia will positively affect regional developments,” Velayati added, predicting that “we will observe the victory of Islamists in future elections in Egypt and Libya.”
Also welcoming the Tunisian results, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani said they reflected Tunisians’ enthusiasm for upholding Islamic principles.
He described Tunisia as the “flag-bearer of [the] Islamic awakening” and promised that Iran’s parliament would support the “awakening movements” in both Tunisia and Libya, ensuring that regional cooperation would be a foreign policy priority for Tehran.
From the outset, Khamenei and other Iranian leaders have argued that the protests some call the “Arab spring” are in fact part of an “Islamic awakening” inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution, a movement that promises to undermine U.S. and Israeli interests in the region. (The uprising is Syria, a key ally, is generally not mentioned in this context.)
The anticipated rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been viewed positively by Iran, which had chilly relations with President Hosni Mubarak and loathed his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, for signing a peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt-Iran ties were also strained over Cairo’s support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Egypt gave ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi a state burial in 1980, and after Sadat was assassinated the following year, Iran infuriated Egypt by naming a street in Tehran for the leader of the assassination plot. Iran later became a key sponsor of Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak’s rival.
According to published reports, in one of the classified State Department cables leaked last year, a U.S. diplomat in Cairo reported in 2009 that Mubarak had “a visceral hatred for the Islamic Republic, referring repeatedly to Iranians as ‘liars,’ and denouncing them for seeking to destabilize Egypt and the region.”
Tehran had somewhat better relations with Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, although the still-unresolved disappearance of an Iranian-born, Lebanese Shi’ite leader during an official visit to Libya in 1978 caused some tensions. Some believe Moussa Sadr was secretly jailed by Gaddafi and may still be alive.
Despite opposing the NATO operation that helped the anti-Gaddafi forces, Iran established contacts with the rebels (now the transitional government) in the early months of the uprising.
After rebel forces overran the government compound in Tripoli in August Iran congratulated “the Muslim people of Libya,” disclosed that it had been “discreetly” helping the rebels with humanitarian aid, and invited the head of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to visit Tehran “at an opportune time.”
In September, Iran voted in favor of Libya’s United Nations seat being given to the NTC, in the process breaking with customary allies like Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba.
Following Gaddafi’s death, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi this week sent a message to the NTC hailing Libya’s “total liberation” and expressing the hope Libyans would install “a regime based on religious democracy while preserving the independence and stability of the country with no influence or interference by foreign forces,” the Mehr news agency reported.
On Wednesday, Tehran’s foreign ministry said Salehi would visit Tripoli soon at the invitation of the NTC.