Wherever we look in the crisis-torn Middle East today we see Iran.
In Yemen it is backing the Houthi rebel side against a Government supported by its foe, Saudi Arabia; its presence in Syria was the initial factor in turning the tide of civil war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories. Israel repeatedly describes Iran as its biggest threat in the region.
Iran’s rise as a major regional power has upset the balance in the Middle East. Since successfully repelling the Western-armed forces of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 war, it has been gradually spreading its military and economic influence.
In this it was hugely assisted by the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq that finally removed Saddam and brought Iraq into the Iranian sphere of influence.
One only has to look at the map to see how will placed Iran is to promote its cause. It shares borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey. It is within striking range of Saudi Arabia and the other Arab States across the Persian Gulf.
The fear in Middle Eastern capitals and in Washington is that it is determined to be the region’s hegemonic power – a proposition that is intolerable among its rivals for religious and strategic reasons.
Yet in Teheran this development is seen as breaking out of the isolation forced on it by the Western powers and its Sunni Muslim neighbours in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution — a perfectly reasonable attempt to regain some of the prestige lost by the old Persian Empire.
Its investment in nuclear power, which Israel constantly reminds the world could lead to the development of nuclear weapons, along with the development of a ballistic missile program, are major planks in a strategy to ensure the integrity of the Islamic State is never again threatened either by its neighbours or the West.
Iran’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War to support a major ally in the region was an inevitable result of this strategy, and its success in halting what seemed to be an inevitable rebel victory would have been one of the factors that inspired Russian President Vladimir Putin, also short of allies in this part of the world, to throw his cap into the ring in support of Assad.
Internally, Iran experiments with a form of democracy, however flawed, and has a limited acceptance of dissent, in contrast to the strictly autocratic regimes of other nations in its neighbourhood, most notably Washington’s staunch ally, Saudi Arabia.
If stability is ever to come to the Middle East there has to be acceptance of Iran as one of the region’s major players; that it has a right to a peaceful nuclear program and to pursue development that will increase the living standards of its 80 million people.
However, there must also be recognition from Tehran that its actions – which it sees as purely defensive – are perceived by its neighbours and the United States as threatening and aggressive. Fundamentally, it must accept that Israel is part of the region and will not be going away.
It is time for all parties to recognise that Iran cannot be dismissed as just one more Middle East problem. It has to be part of the solution.