Revelations about the Obama government’s shipment of $400 million in cash to Iran have raised more than a few eyebrows across the world. It has confirmed the level of rapprochement between two nations who for decades have had the lowest levels of relations. Whilst not as broad in scope or ambition as Nixon’s rapprochement with Maoist China, it is curious how Iran’s role in the region and wider world has changed so rapidly, so recently.
In the early 1980s Iran stood globally isolated. In spite of the Soviet Union being amongst the first countries in the world to recognise the newly formed Islamic Republic, relations between the Communist state and the young theocracy remained detached. Relations with America and her allies were more or less non-existent and with the lone exception of Syria, Iran was isolated from the neighbouring Arab world. Both NATO members and allies as well as Warsaw Pact countries invested in an Iraqi victory during the prolonged war between the Islamic Republic and Saddam’s secular Arab state.
Things hardly improved in the 1990s as the turbulent 1980s ended with Iran calling for the execution of the London based novelist Salman Rushdie. What has changed then since 2003? To quote Harold Macmillan, “Events dear boy, events”. The tragic events unleashed on the Arab world beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq have turned the entire political dynamic of the region upside-down. One can summarise the time-line in the following way.
–The war in Iraq created a new powerful base for Shi’a Arabs in southern and parts of central Iraq.
–The explosive sectarian divisions which created a civil war in Iraq led many Iraqi Shi’a to feel the concepts of Iraqi unity (a goal of Saddam) let alone the goal of pan-Arabism to be less preferable to an alliance based on religious loyalties with a powerful non-Arab Shi’a neighbour. Subsequent governments in Baghdad have been Shi’a dominated, reinforcing this trend.
–The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War gave Iranian allied Hezbollah an increased prestige in Lebanon as the government in Beirut seemed to allow external events to split out of their control. Hezbollah claimed victory and this had geo-political repercussions beyond Lebanon.
–The fostering of Wahhabism and more importantly Wahhabist terrorism in the Arab world, financed by the Gulf states, Turkey (as Russia revealed) and America (as the latest Wikileaked Hillary Clinton emails prove) has caused deep divides in the Arab world, as secular and often religiously plural Arab states continue to be devastated by ISIS. The consequence is that the mid-20th century dream of Arab unity from which Iran was isolated both as a secular imperial state as well as a Shi’a theocracy is a distant memory for many.
–The election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 brought in a moderate keen on opening Iran to the wider world. His predecessor by contrast was more famous for his flamboyant rhetoric and his ability to offend foreign powers than for anything resembling diplomacy.
–The so-called Iran Deal of 2015 helped ease tensions between Iran and the international community. Iran is now $400 million richer for it. Of course this deal would have never come about without the patience, pragmatism and skill of the Russian negotiating team. This is understood in much of Asia, but not even reported by European or American media (whilst this piece is about change, Russia being either maligned or ignored by western media isn’t part of the change narrative).
The compounded effect of these events means that Iran has transformed from an isolated state, a state which appeared far more extreme than its secular Arab neighbours, to a state seen as source of stability and moderation in a region decimated by war and political upheaval. Contrast this with the other great non-Arab power in the region, Turkey where over recent years Erdogan has worn every political costume in the book from Islamic Turkish leader who will undo nearly a century of secularism, a new Sultan who will win respect of the Arabs, a new Sultan who will dominate the Arabs (the Arabs clearly said no thank you as they did in 1916). He’s been pro-Israel, then anti-Israel, now pro-Israel again. He’s gone from wanting to join the EU, to forging an alliance with Russia, then he provoked a war with Russia and now he crawls to Russian begging for forgiveness. He fights the Kurds who are fighting Turkey and funds ISIS who are fighting everyone. Erdogan represents political manic-depression at its most lethal. Suddenly the calmness of the Iranian President seems a welcome contrast with the madness of Sultan Erdogan.
The most crucial issue has been the fact that the only legitimate alliance in the region fighting against ISIS is that of Russia, Iran, Syria, Kurdish fighters and Hezbollah. For all of the differences between them, they have shown themselves to be deeply serious about fighting ISIS whereas Turkey and the Gulf states have created and aided the ISIS problem.
The wider world has psychologically united against ISIS. In terms of political alignments in pursuit of destroying ISIS, people the world over are embracing the narrative that reads ‘anyone fighting ISIS is doing something in the name of the common cause of civilisation over barbarism’. This is vastly more compelling than the feeble arguments of Obama and Hillary Clinton who can only say ‘Assad is a threat to humanity (though we cannot articulate why or how) and while we’re at it lets pay lip service to how much we hate ISIS….oh by the way don’t look at those emails on Wikileaks and if you do know that like everything else in the world, it’s Putin’s fault’….how pathetic.
Iran has changed internally since the 1980s but more importantly the changes to the region have shaken many an inevitability. It’s ‘events dear boy, events’.