Iran stands accused of interfering in Arab affairs, undermining the unity of Arab ranks and seeking to export its Shia brand of Islam to the predominantly Sunni Arab world. The extent of its involvement in Iraq, its rapport with Syria, support of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, its adamant opposition to US military presence in the Gulf region and vitriolic rhetoric against Israeli military occupation is upstaging Arab moderates. They are as uncomfortable with Iran's political ascendancy as the US, Israel and Western countries in general, are concerned about its quest for nuclear technology, advancement in rocket science development and recent launch of a satellite. From being the black sheep of the Middle East Iran is now pressing a new agenda challenging Western domination and defying the region's entrenched, pro-Western regimes.
After 30 years of revolutionary momentum Iran has come of age in a region in which the pressure for change can no longer be restrained. Eight years of unprovoked war with Saddam Hussein's regime and the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq have changed the standards of alliances and challenges. While Arab autocracies were intimidated by the spectre of US invasion and preoccupied with containing the forces of democratic change Iran seized the opportunity to foster relations with its Iraqi allies, support the anti-Israeli Lebanese and Palestinian resistance and raise its anti-American profile in the region. Both its revolutionary rhetoric and policies proved to be an irritant to the moderates who wanted to maintain the status quo and pre-empt any stirrings for change.
Iran was thrust into the midst of Arab affairs by three major developments. The costly aggression by the regime of Saddam Hussein and the war that raged for most of the 1980s made it clear that greater involvement in Gulf regional affairs was a matter of survival. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Israeli-prompted threats by the Bush administration was perceived in Tehran as a military challenge to Iran's independence and development. In addition, the Israeli drive for supremacy in the region based on policies of aggression, invasion and occupation in Lebanon, Palestine and the Golan Heights created the need for new alliances not only with Shia- oriented organisations like Hizbullah but also with secular Syria and Sunni Hamas.
Iran's political shadow has eclipsed the power of traditional Arab regimes and incited their impoverished masses, including disadvantaged Shia minorities, in the same way Gamal Abdel-Nasser's revolutionary tirades agitated popular Arab yearning for change and an end to colonialism. Some Arab regimes fought back by raising the spectre of creeping Iranian Shiism, of proselytising among Sunnis and of non-Arab, Iranian meddling in Arab affairs. Some states, however, most notably Syria and Qatar, believe that there is room for dialogue with Iran.
Resistance movements such as Hizbullah and Hamas consider Iran a reliable ally that can be counted on in the fight against Israeli occupation and expansionism. Other Arab countries want to shut Iran out because of worries its rising revolutionary profile could destabilise their time-honoured, hereditary regimes. Calls are being voiced in a handful of Arab capitals to effectively bar non-Arab countries from involvement in Arab affairs and there are rumours that some regimes have threatened to lower the level of their representation at the upcoming Arab summit in Doha should Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attend.
Escalation with Iran is reaching a level that has been absent for decades in any confrontation with Israel, despite settler expansionism and the targeted assassination of Palestinian activists. Nor did the Anglo-American invasion and annihilation of Iraq not provoke similar vehemence. Isolating Iran by wooing Syria away from its orbit seems to be the overriding priority of Arab moderates. It is viewed as an essential part of their strategy to prevent Iran from stepping into the vacuum that will be created by the planned US withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2010. Their rationale is not dissimilar to US claims in the 1950s that the creation of the Central Treaty Organisation, later the Baghdad Pact, would fill the vacuum left by the declining British presence in the region which would otherwise be usurped by Communist-leaning forces.
There are more common political, security and economic interests between Iran and the Arab states than meets the eye. Only Qatar, in the immediate neighbourhood, and Syria a little further a field, understand these long-term strategic interests.
The Bush administration engineered the spectre of the Iranian threat as a scare-crow from which Arab moderates cringed at Washington's admonition. Charges of Iranian proselytising have been blown out of proportion to deliberately create a conflict of interest fuelled by religious passion. Recent clashes between Saudi Shia and the ultraconservative religious police in Medina were a manifestation of the Muslim Shia minority's attempt to exercise its rights and rituals.
In the world of realpolitik, President Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council last year and the solidarity with Gaza conference held in Doha, Qatar, in January. More recently, Iran invited the leaders of Syria, Qatar, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan, in addition to states in Central Asia, to participate in the summit meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) convened in Tehran. Only Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was absent. He was attending the one-day Arab conciliation mini-summit conference in Riyadh.
US withdrawal from Iraq will not create the vacuum Arab moderates envision. Rather, it will offer an opportunity to come together with Iran to review the challenges, opportunities and threats that face the wider Middle East. The dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates regarding sovereignty over the Gulf islands of Greater Tonb, Lesser Tonb and Abu Moussa is no more intractable than the dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands in the North Pacific Ocean.
The real danger is that Arab moderates have really bought into Israeli-US propaganda that Iran's development of nuclear technology is a threat to their national security. This is essentially an Israeli agenda, reflecting Tel Aviv's own devious policies of the 1970s that led to its development of nuclear weapons, with the tacit support of the US and European powers.
The Cold War amply demonstrated that mutual deterrence was a fundamental aspect of security in the post-nuclear world. That was why developing "overkill capacity" became the major concern of the two superpowers. Israel's obsession is that Iran's possession of nuclear technology will neutralise its decades-long military supremacy in the Middle East which it has used to usurp territories and intimidate its neighbours.
With the rise of ultraconservative politicians in Israel and the imminent formation of an extreme right-wing government led by Benyamin Netanyahu, with extremist wild-card Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister, Arab hopes for progress on the Palestinian-Israeli peace front are dimmed. At the time when the new US administration is developing a strategy of engaging Iran Arab governments would be shooting themselves in the foot by trying to isolate it. It will not take the new US administration long to fathom the malaise that threatens the stability and development of the Middle East. All signs indicate that the region is undergoing a deep transformation, and Iran is a key factor in shaping it. Entrenched Arab regimes are better off riding the tidal wave of change than resisting it...