Soon after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I attended a briefing with senior US State Department officials where the question was asked: “Now, what about Iran?” It was assumed by many at the time that the US, which had struggled to make a case for removing Saddam Hussein, would look across the border to Iran, whose ruling clerics had over the years demonstrated more obvious hostility to US interests.
An official suggested that just as with the collapse of communism, where the people of the Soviet Union could no longer stomach the contradictions between their social, economic and political circumstances and those of the West, so would a new, democratically settled Iraq serve as a beacon for change and transformation in Iran and the wider region.
Everyone knows what happened next. De-Baathification and the lack of a workable post-invasion settlement resulted in a significant expansion of Iranian influence throughout Shia-dominated Iraq and beyond, the subsequent adoption of violent extremism by Sunni groupings, and untold suffering as tribal fault lines asserted themselves in the wake of the collapse of state institutions.
Faith in the transformative powers of western-style democracy was to colour US and British foreign policy in the years after the invasion. The Arab Spring was interpreted by many in Whitehall and Washington as an existential cry for personal freedom, leading to elections and democratic institutions.
It was seen, especially by significant parts of the western media and policymakers, as an unstoppable journey towards political and social reinvention.
But Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the protests, died because he found himself blocked by corrupt officials from making a living and providing for his family. The circumstances of his death illustrated a key driver of the uprisings: it was in significant part a grassroots protest against bureaucracy, corruption and the sclerotic effects of an over-large state on the local economy and social mobility.
At the time of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square there were breathless media reports of a newly aware political class, united by social media to bring about a so-called “Twitter revolution”. But as with Tunisia, it is access to bread, rather than ballot boxes, that remains key to settling the country’s restive 80 million population.
It is clear by now that the simple removal of a regional strongman does not guarantee democratic utopia. And recent history has shown that democratic pathways in the region, where exploited by religious fundamentalism, can lead to less, rather than more, personal freedom. As one of thousands of protesters outside the palace of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi said before his removal: “I don’t want Egypt to be the next Iran.”
It is hoped that post-sanctions exposure to western markets will encourage Iran’s leadership to forgo regional adventurism in favour of a measure of assimilation. Will the billions in investment heading Iran’s way waft it towards the global consensus and regional reconciliation or will its new empowerment help to further promote its geopolitical ambitions?
Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, has been touring Europe, solidifying trade links and demonstrating increased openness to a part of the world still regarded by many Iranians as in lockstep with US imperialists.
Mr Rouhani represents only one wing of Iran’s policymaking machinery. Airbus orders and growing western stakes in the Iranian economy will not by themselves serve to eclipse Iran’s anti-reformist elements – as was recently demonstrated by the Guardian Council’s wholesale rejection of reformist candidates ahead of elections to the Iranian Parliament and Assembly of Experts.
Now that the concerns of the Gulf states are being weighed in the light of Iranian economic reintegration, western pundits and politicians are framing the cases of Saudi Arabia and its neighbours and Iran as politically, socially and geostrategically morally equivalent. They are, it is argued, equally deserving of the benefit of the doubt and of criticism.
But the Gulf countries are the last stable redoubts in a crumbling Middle East. For years they have been faithful strategic, security and trading allies of the West. The UAE has deployed troops on peacekeeping missions from Afghanistan to Kosovo. It established, under International Atomic Energy Agency protocols, a peaceful nuclear energy programme. Iran’s reluctance for its part to satisfy international concerns about proliferation brought down the isolation from international markets from which it has now been permitted to emerge.
There was a distinct narrative in western diplomatic and media circles a year ago calling for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to seek out their own solutions in the Middle East. Now that they are engaged militarily and using their significant resources, they are being criticised as interventionist.
It is unlikely that either Iran or the Gulf countries will fundamentally change their strategic outlook or internal politics now that the former has greater access to markets, save for reforms aimed at diversifying their economies in light of this.
But decades of security, trading and strategic links with the Gulf countries should continue to count as something significant and valuable among western governments in the light of an economically resurgent Iran.
Martin Newland is a former editor-in-chief of The National