It was difficult not to feel joy at Tuesday’s historic papal mass in Abu Dhabi, and the meeting between Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Dr Ahmed Al Tayeb. Both men came to the UAE at the invitation of Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
In the midst of all the tragedies of the Middle East, the UAE has once again come up with an initiative that revives hope in the region, with a view to reforming religious discourse and countering extremist ideologies. It reminded us that dreaming is a right, and that the function of government is to secure the welfare and wellbeing of its citizens.
The chasm couldn’t be greater between Abu Dhabi and other capitals, such as Khartoum, Baghdad, Damascus, or Sanaa – not to mention Tehran. Yet this week also saw an exceptional development in Beirut, where the Arab world’s first female interior minister Rayya Al Hassan assumed office. It was a historic sight, witnessing Ms Al Hassan march in front of male security leaders and officers and receive salutes from Lebanon’s top brass.
Meanwhile, in Iran, there was a familiar scene as the leaders of the regime celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, clinging on to their archaic vision despite its many failures and painful consequences for their people.
In Lebanon, Ms Al Hassan, beyond her first act of removing concrete blocks in the heart of Beirut and the message of hope and recovery from terrorism it sent, spoke of a new working plan for her department. She tackled the security situation, traffic law, electoral law, prison reform, and the civil defence and emergency services. She raised the issue of domestic violence, calling on women who experience abuse to recall that police stations across Lebanon’s cities and villages are duty bound to protect them. Making such a statement after taking over a traditionally male post is how change is made.
Yet this does not mean that Lebanon now respects the rights of women to be part of political decision-making. It remains a country of political and sectarian feudalism. True, it is a precedent in the country for four competent women to serve in the government, but they have all been appointed by male leaders or were chosen for their partisan affiliations. One can only hope that these appointments pave the way for a wider recognition of women’s rights to political participation and for the Lebanese system to evolve accordingly.
In Iran, the state of the Islamic Republic 40 years after Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution requires the pillars of the regime to show some humility and introspection. Doubling down on and exporting the revolution as a policy will push Iran further back in time, regardless of its leaders’ boasts of building missiles, developing military capabilities, and winning battles in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. Today, there is a wide chasm between Iran and the rest of the world, and the Iranian people have been robbed of the ability to dream and live a normal life.
In effect, former US President Barack Obama harmed Iranians when he abandoned them in favour of a deal with the regime. He also made Tehran believe it is above being held to account. Mr Obama drove Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Tehran's clients, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, into a trap when he made them believe the revolution had triumphed, and that their project for regional dominance was irreversible.
Today, Iran's stock is falling, not just in America but in Europe as well. Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif and his broad-smiling diplomacy seemed to succeed in Europe, amid the encouragement of Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini – the two women who served successively as the EU foreign policy chiefs – until the bloc dealt him a blow and all but reneged on its promises and commitments.
Iraq and Syria too have dealt blows to the rulers of Iran. Both countries seemed to offer Iran a major victory and a guaranteed conduit for the Persian Crescent project for regional hegemony. That is before it transpired that nothing was guaranteed, even in Syria, not just because of Israel but also because of Russia.
It is therefore wise for Iran’s leaders to take stock and acknowledge that there is no choice but to reform the regime in order to regain status within its borders. However, this will not be easy, because an internal battle is raging in Iran, and because the so-called reformists remain much weaker than the hardliners, who refuse to compromise. The hardline faction will not consider reform because it would invalidate their raison d’etre, by which they dominate the regime.
Here, a crucial question is this: can the reformists bring about fundamental change in the equation against the continued intransigence of the hardliners? Will the political landscape in the region push Iran into further escalation and intransigence? Or will it bring about a realistic reconsideration that leads to a decision to adapt and reform, in order to survive?
It may be difficult to answer these questions until the battle for the succession of the Supreme Leader begins, which may not be as long as he is alive. Iran is sending out signals of both escalation and strategic “patience”. On the ground in Lebanon and Syria, it is sending entirely different messages.
On Sunday, Mr Zarif will visit Beirut and meet Lebanese officials, led by President Michel Aoun. He will also meet Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and attend a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The visit comes as Mr Nasrallah pledged Iran “will not be alone when America wages war, because all of our region is linked”. As “a friend of Iran”, he is prepared to import Iranian air defences for the Lebanese army “and bring from Iran all that the Lebanese army needs to become the strongest army in the region”.
Mr Zarif’s visit also comes amid talk of Iranian repositioning in Syria, moving from Damascus airport to the T-4 Airbase in Homs, as its position in the capital has come under repeated Israeli bombardment in the past two months. The visit also comes after the IRGC threatened Israel with a torrent of missiles if it attacks Iran.
But what matters here is to understand the purpose of the visit in the context of Iran’s vision for Hezbollah and Lebanon.
Iran and Hezbollah understand well that offering air defence capabilities to the Lebanese Armed Forces is a manoeuvre. Yet there is genuine talk of Iranian attempts to infiltrate other Lebanese institutions through aid. Tehran may want to use official Lebanese cover to protect its assets and Hezbollah from US sanctions, a course of action that has the secondary objective of also driving a wedge between Lebanon, the US and Arab Gulf states.
The onus now falls on Lebanon to prove it is serious about protecting its sovereignty. The Hezbollah chief’s rhetorical escalation against the US and the Gulf states, and offers of Iranian aid by proxy, indicates that the hardliners in Iran have decided to inch towards confrontation, at least tactically.
Advocates of this military confrontation are squarely in the hardliner camp. Indeed, they are well aware that the “victory” of the Iranian revolution will not be complete unless they achieve military victory against Israel. However, they do not want to fight the war to end all wars. They prefer to pretend to be victorious, while exporting a revolution that has brought darkness upon their people.